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Sheryl Sandberg’s mixed legacy

The most important woman in tech is leaving Meta. Will she be missed?

Sheryl Sandberg intended to spend just five years at Facebook when, in 2008, she joined the fledgling company from Google as Mark Zuckerberg’s “right-hand woman”, said Hannah Murphy in the FT. Instead, she stayed for 14 years as Facebook’s (and later Meta’s) chief operating officer, “becoming one of the most recognisable and polarising figures in Silicon Valley”. In recent years, the “power duo” have drifted apart; now Sandberg is off for good in the autumn. She leaves behind a mixed record. On the one hand, she is the female role model who helped grow Facebook into a $500bn-plus company “by supercharging its digital advertising machine”. On the other, she became “a lightning rod for criticism” as the company lurched from scandal to scandal. “Facebook would not be Facebook without Sheryl,” said David Jones of the Brandtech Group – “for good and bad.” 

The deal that Zuck struck with Sandberg was that he’d focus on the product, said Danny Fortson in The Sunday Times. Anything “with a low-geek quotient” – sales, policy, legal, communications, lobbying – was left to his polished “consigliere”, who had useful contacts in Washington, having worked for Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, Larry Summers. The deal, which effectively split Facebook into two domains, will “go down as one of the most consequential in business history”. It made Facebook, which went on to buy Instagram and WhatsApp, a new media juggernaut. But Sandberg also contributed to its “worsening image”. Critics held her responsible for Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data-privacy scandal, as well as Russian disinformation, and the proliferation of hate speech and fake news.

Sandberg’s exit leaves a vacuum at Meta at a tricky time, said Gina Chon on Reuters Breakingviews. The group had its troubles under her leadership, but “at least it had a business model and a top-tier executive who could sell it to investors”. Zuckerberg’s “ambitions lie in more abstract directions”, such as the still-vague “metaverse”. But her real legacy is much broader, said Stephanie Hare in The Observer. Having led the transformation of Google into “the world’s leading advertising business”, she performed a similar trick at Facebook. “Yet where Sandberg sees scale, others see something sinister.” Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff – author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – argues that Sandberg is the “Typhoid Mary” of her age, “owing to her role in spreading Google’s data-mining practices to Facebook”. She will go down in history for her extraordinary success in growing these companies – “and her failure to deal with the costs of that success”.

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