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Sheryl Sandberg’s Legacy

It’s not clear how history will judge Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg, who said on Wednesday that she was quitting Meta after 14 years as the company’s …

Sheryl Sandberg’s Legacy
02.06.2022 19:52
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It’s not clear how history will judge Sheryl Sandberg.

Sandberg, who said on Wednesday that she was quitting Meta after 14 years as the company’s second in command, leaves behind a complicated professional and personal legacy.

She helped build the company formerly called Facebook into one of the world’s most influential and wealthy companies. Her writing and advocacy about women in the workplace and grief gave Sandberg influence on topics that few other American executives touched.

But Sandberg was also partly responsible for Facebook’s failures during crucial moments, notably when the company initially denied and deflected blame for Russia-backed trolls that were abusing the site to inflame divisions among Americans ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And while her 2013 book “Lean In” kicked off important conversations, some of its ideas now feel outdated.

As my colleagues wrote, “Sandberg is ending her tenure at Meta far from the reputational pinnacle she reached last decade.”

Several of America’s superstar tech companies, including Apple, Amazon, Google and Oracle, have lived through relatively recent transitions in which iconic founders have handed over power to hired hands. Sandberg is not the founder of Facebook, of course. But Facebook wouldn’t be what it is today — both good and bad — without the partnership between Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s also difficult to imagine her departure significantly changing Facebook. That suggests that Sandberg’s biggest influence may have been in the past, and that she is no longer as important at Facebook as either her supporters or her detractors believe.

An architect of transforming digital advertising:

The 23-year-old Zuckerberg hired Sandberg in 2008 to figure out how to build Facebook into a large and lasting business. On that score, she succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams. But that legacy is complicated, too.

Sandberg spearheaded a plan to build from scratch a more sophisticated system of advertising that was largely based on what she had helped develop at Google. Ads on Facebook were tied to people’s activities and interests on the site. As at Google, many advertisers bought Facebook ads online rather than through sales personnel, as had been typical for TV or newspaper ads. Later, Sandberg cultivated new systems for Facebook advertisers to pinpoint their potential customers with even more precision.

Google and Facebook transformed product marketing from largely an art to a sometimes creepy science, and Sandberg is among the architects of that change. She shares in the credit (or blame) for developing two of the most successful, and perhaps least defensible, business models in internet history.

All the anxiety today about apps snooping on people to glean every morsel of activity to better pitch us dishwashers — that’s partly Sandberg’s doing. So are Facebook and Google’s combined $325 billion in annual advertising sales and those of all other online companies that make money from ads.

The pattern of deny, deflect, defend.

Sandberg initially said publicly that Facebook played little role in the organizing of the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. That wasn’t quite true. As my colleagues Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang reported, people used Facebook to spread misinformation about election fraud, which fueled anger among the protesters. Some rioters used Facebook to openly discuss the logistics of the attack ahead of time.

In their 2021 book, “An Ugly Truth,” Sheera and Cecilia wrote that to Sandberg’s detractors, her response was part of a pattern of trying to preserve the company’s reputation or her own rather than do the right thing.

Sandberg was also among those responsible for Facebook’s delayed or insufficient initial response in 2018 about news reports that a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, was able to harvest personal information on many millions of Facebook users.

Tech journalists and others who pay close attention to Facebook regularly asked in recent years why Sandberg chose to stay at the company. My colleague Mike Issac said in today’s DealBook newsletter that Sandberg lost influence as Zuckerberg assumed more command over the company. Other executives took over duties that once were Sandberg’s, including overseeing government policy.

Sandberg may have once believed that she could do far more good in the world working at Facebook than she could outside the company, but it was difficult to tell if that was true anymore.

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Tip of the Week

How to report spam texts

Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, offers advice for becoming part of the solution to the scourge of bogus text messages.

In a recent column, I reported on the growing annoyance of text-message spam, which recently outpaced the rise of robocalls.

The texts might be shipping notices about a package that you didn’t order, or pitches for questionable health products like weight-loss pills. The links inside those texts typically point you to a website asking for your personal information, including your credit card number, which scammers could use for fraud.

There’s no sign of SMS spam slowing down. So one of the best things you can do is become part of the solution: Forward the spam text to your phone carrier.

That will help the carriers learn what phone numbers and language are being used in spam texts. That’s useful information to help the carriers improve their technology to stop those messages from ever reaching your phone.

Here’s how to forward spam texts to the carriers:

On iPhones, tap and hold down on the message and tap “More.” Then press the forward button, which is the arrow on the bottom-right corner of the screen. In the recipient field, enter 7726 and hit send.

On Android phones, tap and hold down on the message. When a menu pops up, select “Forward Message.” Enter 7726 in the recipient field and hit send.

Before we go …

  • A trial by TikTok: The jury delivered a verdict on Wednesday in the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. My colleague Amanda Hess recently explored why the trial became fodder for near-continuous fan commentary on TikTok and other apps, most of which portrayed Depp as a hero and Heard as a villain.

  • Will it make children safer in schools if more of them bring phones to classrooms? Experts told The Washington Post that they didn’t recommend it, in part because they said children should focus their attention during an emergency like a school shooting on teachers and other educators, and a phone could make unwanted noises during a silent lockdown. (A subscription may be required.)

  • The sound of nothing is apparently a big business: People who create Spotify audio mixes of just static, ocean waves or other white noise are making up to $18,000 a month, Bloomberg News reported. (A subscription may be required.)

Hugs to this

How does an overheated rhino cool off? By getting very mucky.


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