Why Mark Zuckerberg isn't saying anything

I agree with the popular take on Sarah Lacy's Zuckerberg interview at SXSW to this degree: The audience was revolting. Lacy threw an unbecomingly petulant tantrum on stage. But the Twitter reaction was equally self-indulgent. The debates over her performance obscured the man who should have been under the microscope: Mark Zuckerberg. As a speaker, Facebook's CEO is trying to model himself after Steve Jobs. He's gotten help from Bill Clinton's former speaking coach. But so far, all he's learned is the fine art of saying nothing.

A criticism leveled at Lacy: She didn't ask tough questions. That charge is baseless. Zuckerberg just didn't answer the tough questions she posed. "We're not focused on that," said Zuckerberg in what's becoming his now-standard dodge. Zuckerberg couldn't articulate what Facebook was focused on, except for vague talk of "building a platform." (As panel host Heather Gold proved at a later session with Twitter's Evan Williams, if you ask a startup founder what a platform actually is, you'll never get a meaningful answer.)

A second critique: There was no real news. Lacy did herself no favors by trying to argue that getting Zuckerberg to confirm old revelations, like Yahoo's offer to buy Facebook, constituted a scoop. Facebook à la française? Quelle surprise.

What Zuckerberg needs to learn from his hero: The art of saying something. Jobs keeps his magic alive by only appearing on stage when he has something to announce. Zuckerberg is the boss; he could have held news for this event, or pushed to get products launched in time for him to talk about them.

At his keynote yesterday, Zuckerberg talked a good game about learning to be a CEO, giving up direct oversight of the product in exchange for "setting the tone" for Facebook. He's talking a good game — but under pressure, he reverts to geek form. Later today at SXSW, Zuckerberg is crashing a Facebook developer meetup, where he's going to take questions — the Q&A the audience howled for at the end of Lacy's interview.

Doesn't he have an evangelist to whom he can delegate the mundane task of placating needy Web programmers? He does, but he won't. For Zuckerberg, talking shop comes naturally. Running one is hard.