Today, I’m bringing you a conversation I had with my friend Sheera Frenkel, reporter extraordinaire for The New York Times and co-author, with Cecilia Kang, of An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. Sheera and I go back quite a while, as we were both part of the same universe of former foreign correspondents who reluctantly repatriated and were bewildered by our new domestic beats—as well as by how little most of our compatriots thought about anything in the rest of the world. Sheera, who was once a Middle East correspondent, conquered the transition from Jerusalem to San Francisco brilliantly, becoming the must-read reporter on Facebook, just as it was becoming a major culprit in America’s deepening divisions. Her book with Cecilia covers more than a thousand hours of interviews with more than four hundred people, and yet it is compulsively readable. (This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Julia: In the beginning of the book, when you’re chronicling the relationship between Facebook founder and C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg and FacebookC.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg, you kind of get at the gendered aspect of how it played in the media. You have Zuckerberg hiring Sandberg to do all of the boring but absolutely necessary, responsible, adult things. Some of the criticism I heard about the book—actually it was from somebody who works at Facebook—contends that your portrayal of Sandberg was sexist because it shows her as almost a mother figure, that she has to make decisions for Zuckerberg, that she should know better and save him from himself.
Sheera: I have few thoughts on that. One is that when Sandberg joined the company, the company was publicly calling her a mother figure. People on the board of Facebook were calling her that. And I remember that vividly because as a woman, I found that difficult. I found that language inappropriate—Sandberg was not that much older than Zuckerberg—to paint her in that light when actually she was bringing incredible business acumen to the company. It felt like a P.R. strategy, like they were trying to hype up how young and innovative Mark Zuckerberg was and not put the two of them on equal footing. So I would say that Facebook itself cast her in that role. In the book, we pointedly did not use that language because that is a Facebook P.R. line. Instead, we tried to focus on her and how incredible her business savvy was, and how she really built Facebook into the trillion-dollar company it is today.