Sheryl Sandberg’s departure from Meta, née Facebook, is the kind of supposedly earth-shattering event that executives in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, and in Washington have been anticipating—and in some cases hoping for—for years. But it’s also been the sort of event that many were never assured would come to fruition. And it certainly caught everyone I know off guard when Sandberg shared the news this afternoon that she’d be leaving the company amicably after 14 years as C.O.O.
Her story, as it played out in the media, is quite familiar, and defined by two distinct acts. In the first, Sandberg was branded the groundbreaking feminist business icon—the immensely pedigreed Larry Summers protégé and Google wunderkind who helped Mark Zuckerberg and his social media network grow to maturity and achieve unrivaled global influence. In the second, she became the ruthless operator who put profit ahead of principle, and failed to stem an overwhelming tide of controversy despite being obsessed with her public image.
These portrayals were at least partly the product of an obsessive news media that was dazzled by Silicon Valley right up until the point that it wasn’t, and blamed the platform for, among other things, the election of Donald Trump, the erosion of faith in the press, and the cratering of their own advertising businesses. Facebook, with its carnivorous appetite for user data, was the ideal and often apt bogeyman for these evils, and Sandberg, as the supposed adult who was brought in to mature the company’s revenues and image, bore much of the blame. A lot of the criticism was fair, some of it was hyperbolic, and some incredibly complex and nuanced issues were reduced to caricatures, but that’s life at the top.