Jan-Luyken — The Execution of Anne Hendricks in Amsterdam — 1571

Hero worship and the Sheryl Sandberg takedown

I woke this morning to a story in the New York Times about Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg investigations into George Soros’ affairs and the predictable angry backlash on Twitter. It honestly got my blood boiling.

Leaving aside the fact that Sandberg is a feminist author and seems to be getting more than her fair share of criticism (see Forbes), this is just bullshit.

We keep shifting from unwarranted hero worship to “these people are evil” and you’d think we’d have learned by now. Yes, Steve Jobs was amazing at product. No, he was not worthy of your mindless admiration. Because we define #winning as the only yardstick of success, we constantly choose the wrong heroes. Then we act surprised when we find out they are flawed or dark, and we tear them off their pedestal.

More importantly, this constant focus on whether people are good or bad is a distraction from the real issue: it’s your capitalism that’s broken. See part II of this post.

In defence of Sheryl Sandberg

Put yourself in the shoes of Sheryl Sandberg for two minutes. Your primary responsibility is to the board of directors and indirectly to shareholders, because we live in a world of quarterly expectations where share price performance is the only measure of a job well done (ugh). You deal with a legal system that forces you to fall under the umbrella of either being a publisher or being a hosting platform (I’m simplifying heret), which means once you start moderating content too hard you switch to a completely different operating landscape, and that’s hard to manage. Your CEO is an exceptional engineer and product guy with a somewhat techno-utopian vision of the world and probably not the highest EQ in the world.

Now you’ve got one of the world’s most aggressive activist investor at your door, one that brilliantly mixes business and politics and usually has a trade attached to everything he does. Are you supposed to be a sitting duck and wait to get thrashed by someone who’s almost certainly playing the market? Would that be a responsible stance to take? Of course not — so you do your homework: what’s driving him? what methods is he using to influence the perception of facebook in the market?

Imagine that a successful structured short on facebook is worth a couple of billions if it succeeds. It’s perfectly possible that someone would deploy significant means against that trade, including using covert influence groups on your own platform to shift public perception. Who knows?

So I get really angry when I see these stories that throw individuals under the bus. Now, I don’t know Sheryl Sandberg and I’m not really trying to defend her or absolve or comment on whether she’s acting responsibly — I’m just trying to provide perspective here. She’s an exec at a large public company and she’s doing her job. In the same way that I never expected her to be a saint, I don’t expect she’s evil either.

It’s the system that needs fixing.

What’s even more aggravating is that this focus on individuals is mostly irrelevant, because it’s a distraction from the real underlying issue. Do me a favour and go read umair haque with an open mind and an open heart.

It doesn’t really matter who runs facebook or Twitter. In the case of Twitter I bet they are pretty benevolent individuals. What matters is that we are faced with platforms that have aggregated insane economic power.

Instead with getting obsessed with the personal character of X or Y and painting everything with the (hypocritical) brush of “morality”, we should just focus on the type of system we are building and the appropriate regulation and policing that should apply to these transnational juggernauts and stop assuming they will self regulate “if only we had the right people running them”.

The large internet platforms are intensely scalable data and profit machines. They are able to pay engineers and designers $1M a year because a small group of highly dedicated, highly talented people harness and harvest data at scale. As a result they concentrate informational and economic power.

That’s what we need to focus on. That’s what needs fixing.

Not who runs them.

And we certainly don’t need to take one of America’s most successful female executives and run a good old witch hunt.