Sheryl Sandberg, Meta’s second-in-command for 14 years, is leaving amid perhaps the most tumultuous and uncertain period in the company’s history. Meta is fundamentally pivoting its business, and that change will occur without the original architect of that business in the picture.
Sandberg, the executive who built the engine of Meta’s massive profitability, made the somewhat anticipated announcement of her departure in a lengthy Facebook post earlier this week. The former Chief Operating Officer said she chose to leave to focus on her foundation and philanthropic work, though previous reporting details a growing rift between her and Zuckerberg for years. Once a mainstay of public appearances and loud pro-Facebook proclamations, Sandberg has been relegated mostly to the sidelines, appearing occasionally, sometimes only emerging to plunge her foot in her own mouth.
Sandberg played a key role in transforming Facebook from an unorganized startup into an empire of apps. She leaves that kingdom during a time of immense flux, with a name change and an entirely new business direction underway. The COO herself departs with a mixed reputation.
The newly christened Meta is likewise building products unlike ones it’s ever built before, ones that have little to do with Sandberg’s experience. Sandberg’s advertising expertise and vision for Facebook’s growth were instrumental in accelerating the company from a dorky dorm room app into a social network capable of steering democracies. At the same time, her self-proclaimed obsession with scale seeded the foundation for some of the company’s most nefarious controversies around data privacy, surveillance, and political polarization. The ex-exec acknowledged Meta’s need to build products that “protect privacy and keeps people safe” in her exit post, but reporting and internal documents made public by Gizmodo suggest Sandberg’s dogged drive for profitability may have done just the opposite.
Sandberg, as The New York Times’ Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang explain in their 2021 book An Ugly Truth, was instrumental in transitioning Facebook into one of the most powerful advertising vessels known to man. In 2008, she left her vice president role at Google where she was credited with growing the company’s search engine advertising segment into a $16.6 billion business to join Zuckerberg at Facebook. Sandberg immediately put her fist down in efforts to scale the fledgling company.
Pulling from her experience at Google, Sandberg understood the value of Facebook’s precise levels of personal user data and access to those users’ activity. As would become clear to much of the public years later during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook truly “knew” its users in a way distinct from other internet companies at the time. Sandberg handled much of Facebook’s public relations during the imbroglio, much to the detriment of her own reputation and Facebook’s.
“Facebook users weren’t there to shop, but advertisers could use the company’s understanding of its users to convert then into shoppers,” Frenkel and Kang write.
That new use of targeted personalized ads would serve as a model for countless other internet companies who would follow Facebook’s lead and has led to a reality where just about every minute interaction on the web can be harvested into a potential advertising tool. With Facebook’s now-notorious personalized ad business unlocked, the profits came soaring in. Facebook went from taking in just $153 million in revenue in 2009. Ten years later, the same company would bring in a whopping $70 billion, the overwhelming majority of which came from digital ads. That power of its ads business continues to this day: last year around 97% of Meta’s total revenue came from ads.
Aside from advertising, Sandberg basically ran large chunks of the company Zuckerberg was ill-equipped to understand. Zuckerberg admitted as much in his Facebook post this week: “I was only 23 years old and I barely knew anything about running a company.”
She was willing and apparently interested in tackling other “boring” problems Zuckerberg reportedly didn’t want to deal with, like policy and regulatory affairs. Shocker, then, that those very issues would surface over and again for Facebook in the years to come.
“Zuckerberg recognized that Sandberg excelled at, even enjoyed, all the parts of running a company that he found unfulfilling,” Frenkel and Kang write. “She had high-level contacts at the biggest advertising agencies and with the top executives of Fortune 500 companies. And she would bring to Facebook an asset that her new boss would need: experience in Washington D.C.”
Critics argue Meta’s focus on growth at all costs has had disastrous consequences both for users and the larger social-political world. From allegedly abetting mass killings in Myanmar to inadvertently promoting the spread of fake news, hate speech, conspiracy theories, climate denialism, and Covid-19 misinformation, Meta places time spent engaging with its apps at a premium in order to maximize advertisement potential. Though those issues transcend any one executive, some of Sandberg’s former staff put part of the blame on her, claiming in a 2018 Bloomberg article that she didn’t move quickly enough to put out fires and apparently viewed reoccurring issues as PR problems to wait out rather than systemic issues worthy of reflection and change.
Internal Meta documents shared with Gizmodo as part of The Facebook Papers project suggest Sandberg’s philosophy of growth has nestled itself deep into the company’s product infrastructure and plays a role in the ranking algorithms that decide what content users see. In multiple documents, Facebook employees grappled with how to balance maximizing profit and growth with encouraging healthy behaviors amongst its community. The two are often at odds.
“During Sheryl Sandberg’s 14-year tenure at Meta, the company’s social media platforms—Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp—devolved into cesspools of disinformation, racism, misogyny, violent conspiracy theories, and alt-right organizing,” Media Matters President Angelo Carusone said in a statement sent to Gizmodo. “Sheryl Sandberg knew this was a problem, and—like CEO Mark Zuckerberg—she failed to act.”
Even if one can bring themselves to accept those issues as part of the cost of doing business, Sandberg still has to answer for years of lackluster Congressional hearings, political turmoil, and controversial lobbying efforts conducted under her leadership as head of Facebook’s public policy team.
“Sandberg leaves Meta, and the social media environment that Facebook helped create, in a far worse place than she found it. Hers is a legacy of enabling trolling, harassment, and abuse,” said Carusone.
All those issues, and many, many more, have had the combined effect of sullying Meta’s reputation, and Sandberg’s by extension. Worse still, Sandberg’s association with the company has managed to make her ill at home amongst women’s advocacy organizations and other groups where she was once held in high esteem after 2013's Lean In. Just hours after she announced her resignation, feminist group UltraViolet released a statement skewering Sandberg.
“Sheryl Sandberg may fancy herself a feminist, but her decisions at Meta made social media platforms less safe for women, people of color, and even threatened the American electoral system. Sandberg had the power to take action for fourteen years, yet consistently chose not to,” UltraViolet co-founder Shaunna Thomas said in a statement.
While Sandberg may have given her official resignation this week, she’s arguably been on the sidelines for years. She started taking steps back following the sudden death of her husband in 2015 and never managed to regain the same No. 2 status she once occupied. As she gradually forfeited her role, leaked documents from The Wall Street Journal last year revealed the number of employees actually reporting to her shrank significantly over the years. In other words, her departure wasn’t sudden. If anything, it was probably long overdue for a company desperately in need of an identity change. At least part of Sandberg appears to have felt the same way. In an interview with The Verge, Sandberg said she believed she was “14 years into a job I thought would last for five years.”
Though it’s possible the only people who will know the true reason for Sandberg’s departure are her and Zuckerberg, there’s reason to believe her skill sets simply no longer align with what’s needed to keep Meta afloat. Put simply, Meta’s in trouble. The company continues to rank amongst the least trusted companies in tech and is still dealing with the fallout of former product manager and whistleblower Frances Haugen’s historic leak. On the business side, the Big Blue app recorded its first quarterly decline in daily active users in its history and overall is becoming increasingly irrelevant amongst young users flocking to TikTok. The users are literally drying out.
Making matters even worse, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency tool appears to have driven a giant pike through the company’s ad strategy spearheaded by Sandberg. Meta claims those changes from Apple could cost the company $10 billion in lost ad sales this year. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg appears tunnel vision focused on making the metaverse a reality and recently told shareholders he expects to lose “significant” heaps of cash investing in the technology for five, or possibly even 10 years. 2008 growth machine Sandberg would be rolling on the floor with a heart attack at this point. Oh yeah, and then there’s that whole issue with regulators in the U.S. and elsewhere trying to sue Meta into oblivion.
You wouldn’t know it from the friendly, bordering on romantic tone of Sheryl and Mark’s and farewell posts this week, but hidden below the brown-nosing could actually be a hint of relief. Relief on Sandberg’s part to walk away from a company that’s betting the house on an unproven technology that makes people vomit, and relief from Zuckerberg to get rid of a meandering executive who only occasionally emerges from the shadows to make Meta’s already monstrous public perceptions even worse.