Learning Interviews and Ethnography

As an ethnographer, I care a fair bit about interviewing techniques and styles. Not that interviews are the only method we use. We do participant-observation, preliminary research, quantitative analysis, genealogy… But skills at conducting open-ended interviews come in handy in ethnographic disciplines.

It then follows that I enjoy finding examples of effective and ineffective interviewing. Typically, interviews in mainstream media (MSM) contain useful material on what not to do in an interview.

This is exactly what I consider yesterday’s Lacy-Zuckerberg “keynote” to be: an example of what should be avoided at all costs while doing an insightful interview. Not so bad if all you want to do is dig dirt. But abysmal in terms of insight.

Apparently, jscholars and media experts agree about the value of the Lacy-Zuck fiasco for learning moments:

Even though I’m local to SXSW, I wasn’t at the keynote (I don’t have a SXSWi badge). I mostly looked at live reactions after they had been posted and briefly discussed the session with someone who did attend. I’m still trying to make sense of what happened which is a bit difficult in the fickleness of media (“geek” or mainstream).

Some of the most impactful live reactions were posted on Twitter, with Robert Scoble as a central figure. Some of those reactions were rather harsh, even insulting. Given my cynicism toward MSM, I assumed that part of those reactions were exacerbated by the situation. And while I now think that the interview was even more inappropriate than I thought it had been, I still think part of the groaning was self-generated. After all, it’s not like MSM weren’t already filled with I-Show self-congratulatory interviews.

To be honest (and I can certainly be wrong): my guess is that what started as relatively mild disappointment at the way the interview was going transformed into audible/visible reactions as well as “tweets” (text updates on Twitter), which then caused a sort of feedback loop. Those who weren’t twittering at the point might still have reacted audibly and/or visibly. Since, as human beings, we’re quite clueful in terms of people’s paralanguage (“body language”), this scenario doesn’t sound as absurd as some attendees might assume.

In fact, people keep mentioning Sarah Lacy’s paralanguage (including proxemics and kinesics), which makes me suspect that the communication break may have spilled over from non-linguistic clues.

I sure hope the Language Log gang will pick this story up as it can make for a very interesting discussion among language scientists. Should probably send something to the Linguistic Anthropology blog.

The paralinguistic dimension reminds me of the history of televised debates, especially the Nixon-Kennedy case. Haven’t seen the Zuckerberg-Lacy transcript yet but it does sound like the verbal component of the interview was less problematic than the aural and visual dimensions. Maybe I’m too much of a fan of orality, but I’m looking forward to reading the complete transcript. And watching the complete video.

Interestingly, Lacy herself seems to focus on the “written” content, in response to the controversy. Quite clear in this video, even more so in her twittered reply. Both the video and the tweet are already (in)famous. Hopefully they can help people take a step back and look at the situation as a whole. The authority/legitimacy/jschool-cred angles are easy to follow. And the “in my book” comment is too funny in context to pass up (Lacy kept promoting her hardcopy book). The “high profile” comment is very intriguing. Maybe Lacy expected something more out of “South-by” than a chance to “moderate a keynote” in front of highly-involved participants.

Ah, well…

My motto remains: “Don’t get angry. Get a Clue!”

Hadn’t realized until just now that Sarah Lacy was the same journalist who wrote about her sour grapes over the TED conference. That one was another story I found interesting, especially in terms of the geek niche. Lacy, and others, seem to worry about “geek fame.” Reactions to her “Zuck” interview seem to imply she’s easily star-struck.

Which brings us to gender. Many people, including or even especially women, are referring to Lacy as a ditz. Many talk about her Valley Girl speech (part paralanguage, of course). Not to mention that her BusinessWeek column is called Valley Girl. Plus, the apparently-flirtatious behavior is clearly gendered. Not that her gender was the root cause of the fiasco. But the fiasco has an obvious gender dimension. A man acting the same way would probably not have fared much better but the reactions would have been quite different. Not kinder, just different.

The “mob mentality” and “flashmob” aspects can also lead to insight into geek culture. In simple terms, this is what anybody would call a “tough crowd.” “Lions in the arena” sounds like a fitting analogy. Was Lacy an amazone? Clearly, there are parallels to make with Michelle Madigan at DefCon. In that situation, a self-assured MSM journalist was shunned from a hacker conference for failing to play by the rules set by the audience. Sarah Lacy is being burnt partly because she failed to play to her audience.

The larger lesson is: context is key.



Author: enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast.

6 thoughts on “Learning Interviews and Ethnography”

  1. @Coffee Fair enough… (Although, MTSC isn’t my style.)
    The “impostor syndrome” can sometimes be linked with using looks or charm as a fallback.

  2. Alexandre,
    I’d love your opinion of the advice I wrote for Sarah Lacy. Do you think this would work from your perspective as a better way to have communicated?

    The Sarah Lacy Fiasco – The Bratton Perspective.

    Sarah Lacy – Here’s How to FIX Your Reputation

    How to Conduct A Live On-Stage Interview

    SXSW vs. TED – The Value of Preparation and Maturity


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