One of the most powerful women in tech left the world’s biggest social media company this year. Alexi Mostrous explains how Sheryl Sandberg’s departure from Meta helps him make sense of 2022
“Sheryl Sandberg is stepping down as chief operating officer at Meta, the parent company of Facebook.”CBS News
Two days before the end of last September, Sheryl Sandberg pushed through the glass doors at Meta one last time.
She hugged her co-workers. She even shed a few tears.
After 14 years at the tech giant this was a big moment.
In the words of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, it was the “end of an era”.
But in a way, Sheryl Sandberg’s departure is so much more than that.
In the months after she left, Meta’s revenue has plunged; its user base is dwindling; and Mark Zuckerberg is facing questions about the billions he’s pouring into the metaverse.
Sheryl Sandberg leaving Meta might be the beginning of the end for Facebook – the social media company that once ruled the world.
Sheryl Sandberg was the grown up in the room.
Whip smart, mature and empathetic, she was the yin to Zuck’s yang.
When she joined the social network, she was already a rock star.
Before Facebook she’d worked for Google – she’d managed to turn the promising search engine into an advertising giant.
And at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg did exactly the same thing.
She took Mark Zuckerberg’s creation and crafted it into a multi-billion dollar online advertising business… pretty much from scratch.
“It is not too strong to say that in 2008, the business, the revenue, the advertising, didn’t interest Mark a lot, and Sheryl had to hire the people who were gonna turn Facebook into an actual business.”Former Facebook board member on Bloomberg Technology
Facebook collected a huge amount of data on its users – what they liked, who they were friends with…
It gave the company an extraordinary insight into the minds of literally billions of people.
Sheryl Sandberg’s big idea was to leverage all this data and to allow companies to target Facebook users with ads for products they might like.
When she joined the company in 2008 it was a four-year-old start up with about 500 employees and revenue of about $270 million a year. By the time she left, Facebook had 75,000 employees and revenue hit $117 billion – the vast majority generated by the digital advertising structure that she had built.
But she did something else too. She gave Facebook legitimacy.
While Mark Zuckerberg was a tech bro – a guy whose motto was “move fast and break things” – Sheryl Sandberg made sure employees got benefits like bereavement support and anti-bullying training.
And in 2013 she became something of a feminist icon, after she wrote Lean In – a book encouraging women to assert themselves at work.
By this stage, Sheryl and Mark were basically co-CEOs and in 2016 people were predicting that she could become the CEO of Disney – or maybe treasury secretary in a Hillary Clinton government.
But Donald Trump’s victory changed everything.
It turned out that Sheryl Sandberg’s big idea – leveraging Facebook’s data to micro-target its users – was wide open to abuse and manipulation.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, wrote an open letter in 2017 that put this point itself well. This is what he said: “There are some suggestions that political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways, to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls. Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things, to different groups. Is that democratic?”
Up until this point, tech journalists and politicians hadn’t really scrutinised Facebook’s business model.
But after 2016, after Donald Trump became president, Facebook’s power to disrupt elections, to spread misinformation, was thrown into the spotlight.
Sheryl Sandberg: “Things happened on our platform in this election that should not have happened… especially, ad very troubling, foreign interference in a democratic election and we know we have a responsibility to do everything we can to prevent this kind of abuse…”
Interviewer: “Does Facebook owe the American people an apology?”
Sheryl Sandberg: “Well, certainly, anytime there is abuse on our system… foreign interference on our system… We are upset.”Sheryl Sandberg in an interview with Axios
Sheryl Sandberg began to feel the heat and over the next five years, things only got worse – for her and for Meta.
Mark Zuckerberg started sidelining Sheryl Sandberg. And around the same time, criticism of Meta intensified.
“Well, I mean, wow, what stunning testimony and I think, you know, the difference between what we’ve seen in the past and what we’ve seen today is that the cat is out of the bag.”CNBC
“Molly’s dad Ian has waited five years for this inquest. He criticised Meta, which owns Instagram, for defending some of their policies as safe.”ITV News
“Facebook and Big Tech are facing a Big Tobacco moment. A moment of reckoning.”Senator Richard Blumenthal in US Senate hearing
The one thing that was going well at Facebook were the numbers. In 2021 – Sheryl Sandberg’s last full year at the company – Facebook was still a $1 trillion business. Revenue was at record levels.
But in 2022, that all changed. Meta has lost an extraordinary two thirds of its value this year.
TikTok and other platforms are stealing Facebook’s users. Advertisers are slashing spending – thanks partly to Apple’s decision to stop Facebook tracking iPhone users. And all the time Mark Zuckerberg seems to be sticking his head in the sand, pouring billions of dollars into a metaverse which investors are still not sold on.
Looking back on Facebook’s performance this year, it seems like Sheryl Sandberg got out at just the right time.
And today? Well, she still hasn’t landed a huge job at Disney – or in politics. But she is donating some of the huge fortune she earned from Facebook to issues she cares about and she’s speaking out in a way she probably couldn’t have before.
It feels like Sheryl Sandberg is finally finding her voice.
And what’s equally interesting to me, is that Facebook – and Mark Zuckerberg – might be losing theirs.
This episode was written by Alexi Mostrous and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.
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