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The Legacy of Sheryl Sandberg


It’s not clear how history will judge Sheryl Sandberg.

Sandberg, who said Wednesday she was stepping down from 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 known as Facebook into one of the world’s most influential and prosperous companies. Her writing and advocacy about women in the workplace and mourning gave Sandberg influence on topics few other American executives touched upon.

But Sandberg was also partially responsible for Facebook’s failures at pivotal times, most notably when the company initially denied and blamed Russian-backed trolls who abused the site to foment divisions among Americans ahead of the 2016 US presidential election. And while her 2013 book “Lean In” sparked important conversations, some of her ideas now feel outdated.

As my colleagues wrote, “Sandberg is ending her tenure at Meta far from the level of reputation she has achieved over the past decade.”

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

It’s also hard to imagine her departure changing Facebook significantly. That suggests that Sandberg’s greatest influence may have been in the past, and that she is no longer as important to Facebook as her supporters or her opponents think.

An architect of transforming digital advertising:

Zuckerberg, 23, hired Sandberg in 2008 to figure out how to make Facebook a big and sustainable company. In that regard, she succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams. But that legacy is also complicated.

Sandberg led a plan from the ground up to build a more sophisticated advertising system based largely on what she helped develop at Google. Ads on Facebook were linked to people’s activities and interests on the site. As with Google, many advertisers bought Facebook ads online rather than through sales personnel, as was common for TV or newspaper ads. Later, Sandberg developed new systems for Facebook advertisers to locate their potential customers even more accurately.

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

All the fear these days about apps snooping on people to collect every morsel of activity to better present us dishwashers — that’s partly Sandberg’s job. So are Facebook and Google’s combined $325 billion in annual ad sales and those of all other online businesses that make money from ads.

The pattern of deny, deflect, defend.

Sandberg initially said publicly that Facebook played little role in organizing the Capitol Uprising on January 6, 2021. That was not entirely true. As my colleagues Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang reported, people were using Facebook to spread misinformation about electoral fraud, fueling anger among protesters. Some rioters used Facebook to openly discuss the logistics of the attack in advance.

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

Sandberg was also one of those responsible for Facebook’s delayed or insufficient initial response in 2018 about news reports that a political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, was able to collect personal information from many millions of Facebook users.

Tech journalists and others keeping a close eye on Facebook regularly requested why Sandberg chose to stay with the company in recent years. My colleague Mike Issac said in today’s DealBook newsletter that Sandberg lost influence as Zuckerberg gained more control over the company. other executives took over tasks that once belonged to Sandbergincluding overseeing government policy.

Sandberg may have once believed that she could do a lot more good in the world by working at Facebook than outside the company, but it’s hard to say whether that was more true.

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Tip of the week

Brian X. Chenothe consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, offers advice on being part of the solution to the scourge of fake text messages.

In a recent column, I reported on the growing annoyance of SMS spam, which recently surpassed the rise of robocalls.

The texts could be shipping notices about a package you didn’t order, or pitches for questionable health products like slimming pills. The links in those texts usually point you to a website that asks for your personal information, including your credit card number, which scammers can use for fraud.

There are no signs that SMS spam is slowing down. So one of the best things you can do is be part of the solution: forward the spam text to your phone company.

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

To forward spam messages to the carriers, do the following:

On iPhones, tap and hold the message, then tap More. Then press the forward button, the arrow in the lower right corner of the screen. In the recipient field, enter 7726 and press send.

On Android phones, tap and hold the message. When a menu appears, select ‘Forward message’. Enter 7726 in the recipient field and press send.

  • A trial by TikTok: The jury on Wednesday ruled in the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. My colleague Amanda Hess recently explored why the lawsuit 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 the classroom? Experts told The Washington Post said they didn’t recommend it, in part because they said children need to focus during an emergency, such as a school shooting of teachers and other educators, and that a phone can make unwanted noises during a silent shutdown. (A subscription may be required.)

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

How does an overheated rhinoceros cool down? Through get very dirty.

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