When she joined then-nascent The Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg saw the Internet as “a largely anonymous place to search for funny pictures” – but as she departs 14 years later, she leaves a fractious legacy that fundamentally reshaped global social discourse online and off.
Sandberg, who as chief operating officer of Facebook worked side by side with founder Mark Zuckerberg, was the Elton John to his Bernie Taupin – wrapping his meandering vision in business know-how that helped the company define the social-media era.
It was an entrancing opportunity from the start, Sandberg said in an extensive farewell post in which she recalled being introduced to then-23-year-old Zuckerberg at a party and finding his vision of an authentic online community “so mesmerising that we stood… and talked for the rest of the night.”
Like any startup, however, the “chaotic” early days of Facebook saw her learning to accommodate software engineers’ nocturnal working habits, dealing with demanding and tempestuous advertisers, and inadvertently helming the company when Zuckerberg spontaneously disappeared for a month to go travelling.
“It was a display of trust I have never forgotten,” Sandberg wrote, calling Zuckerberg “a true visionary and a caring leader” and calling her association with the company “the honour and privilege of a lifetime”.
“In the critical moments of my life, in the highest highs and in the depths of true lows, I have never had to turn to Mark,” she wrote, “because he was already there.”
As a high-profile mother running one of the world’s largest tech companies, Sandberg was keenly aware of the challenges women face in juggling family and work commitments.
“The messages were everywhere that women – and I – could not be both a leader and a good mother,” she wrote, “but I wanted to give it a try”.
She counts her work helping women entrepreneurs amongst her greatest achievements, which have included generating “billions of dollars raised for causes people believe in… [and helping] entrepreneurial people – especially women and others who have faced obstacles and discrimination – who have turned their ideas into successful businesses.”
In that vein, Sandberg says she is leaving the firm to focus more on her foundation and philanthropic work – which, she wrote, “is more important to me than ever given how critical this moment is for women.”
A complex legacy
Sandberg’s departure is the “end of an era”, Zuckerberg said in responding to Sandberg’s farewell post, lauding their “unusual” enduring relationship and noting that she “architected our ads business, hired great people, forged our management culture, and taught me how to run a company.”
For all her rose-tinted reminiscences, Sandberg’s tenure with Facebook ran the full gamut – from heady growth and market dominance, to government investigations, controversy over the company’s systematic exploitation and violation of users’ privacy, eye-watering fines and anti-trust concerns from regulators, whistleblower leaks about the company’s predatory business practices, and the 2018 dumpster fire that was the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Years after that incident, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) is still suing Facebook and newly-minted parent company Meta over that data-harvesting system, which compromised personal data about more than 300,000 Australian Facebook users and could lead to billions in fines.
Having overseen both spectacular growth and unprecedented ignominy, Sandberg has helped maintain the company’s role as a share-market darling – despite the occasional massive correction, such as the company’s $168b soaking in 2018 or its recent admission that new Apple privacy features would cost it $13b this year alone.
She was also instrumental in recasting Facebook party line as a privacy champion, and pivoting Meta into a business focused on promoting the fast-evolving idea of the metaverse – a new, unregulated online virtual world with Wild-West appeal and unimaginable potential for foisting advertisements on users in completely new and intrusive ways.
An “immensely proud” Sandberg, for her part, will remain on Meta’s board and remains philosophical about the challenges she has helped Zuckerberg and thousands of employees navigate over the years.
“The debate around social media has changed beyond recognition since those early says,” she wrote.
“The products we make have a huge impact, so we have a responsibility to build them in a way that protects privacy and keeps people safe…. I know that our platforms will continue to be an engine of growth for the businesses around the world that rely on us.”
“To say it hasn’t always been easy is an understatement. But it should be hard.”