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Finders Keepers and the most powerful woman in the world


Is Sheryl Sandberg the most powerful woman in the world?


You know, Sheryl, who used to be Chief of Staff at the US Treasury.

Then ran Ad Sales at Google and helped turn AdWords and AdSense into the greatest money-making machine of the last 20 years.

She helped Google grow from 250 people to 20,000.

She then moved to Google’s enemy, Facebook, where she runs the business day-to-day while Mark Zuckerberg hones the product vision.

All this and she is only 41.

She is feted by the business world, courted by governments and (generally, but not always) lauded by the press.

Finders Keepers was part of the audience at her talk in London on Wednesday night at the London School of Economics.

This is our take on the evening:

Some statistics for context:

– Facebook would be the 3rd biggest country in the world by membership

– 15 million people ‘friend’ someone each day

– 50 million people ‘like’ a page each day

– 2.5 million software developers are working on applications for Facebook today

Her key points:

1. The social web is about social discovery, not information retrieval

a. When you ask a search engine a question, you know what you want. However, the true social web is about being surprised and not even asking questions – you learn about your friends’ lives continuously

2. The wisdom of friends is more powerful than the wisdom of crowds and algorithms

a. This is a key tenet of Facebook vs. Google: Sheryl believes that your friends’ views, knowledge and connections are far more powerful than those delivered by an algorithm. She argues that your friends know you and you know them, and this dramatically helps curate information better than [Google’s] software

3. Social discovery goes beyond friends to strangers

a. Meeting people online is often easier than offline and it helps forge incredible connections. She gave an example of someone who found a kidney donor via Facebook which (probably) wouldn’t have happened in real life

4. Facebook is the new platform for campaigning

a. She meant this politically and commercially. She cited Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory as the first ‘social media election’

b. Samsung apparently launched their Galaxy tablet via Facebook. They had 24,000 ‘friends’ before launch which generated 7 million ‘impressions’ [1 page being served to 1 person = 1 impression] upon product launch

5. Social design is the future for all industries

a. This doesn’t mean the best product wins. X Box and Wii have better games than Zygna [creator of games wedded to Facebook’s platform] with richer graphics, more immersive plots, but Zygna has more users and it is only a few years old

b. What is the reason? The ease of participation and the ease of sharing are key for Zygna and so people leap into using it

6. Social design has the power to ‘do good’

a. She said that analysing social trends can predict flu 2 weeks before an outbreak. Apparently if you have an obese friend you’re twice as likely to become obese as not

So far, so good.

The key message was that Facebook may be a platform / a tool / a utility, but really it empowers people and relationships and so people must be the focus, not technology.

It was a slick performance. A sincere 45 minute speech with no cue cards, no PowerPoint, no pauses and no stumbles despite the 4-inch stilettos.

Parts of what she said sounded like a Facebook info-mercial, a long-winded press release that didn’t deliver a lot of insight.

Other parts were very stimulating, especially when she talked about the vision they have at Facebook to use ‘social design’ to build products which spread like wildfire.

The questions

To both LSE’s and Sheryl’s credit, they took a lot of questions. Almost 45 minutes’ worth. This was made more interesting by the pack of media journalists sitting at the front, including Emily Maitlis [Newsnight], Rory Cellan-Jones [BBC’s lead technology reporter], Ben Cohen [Channel 4’s technology reporter] and some Wall Street Journal guy.

The tone of the talk became more intense and more political, with a small ‘p’. With all the journalists eager for their ‘topline’ [the news hook which will headline their coverage] and news from the boss of Facebook, Sheryl became more corporate, used more jargon and ultimately ducked some questions.

Sadly, at times she sounded just like a politician dodging a question, something we’re accustomed to in the UK but rarely impressed by.

What is Facebook’s plan for China?

– We don’t really know. We’re trying to get a foothold there, we’re only available intermittently but we don’t have a fixed plan.

– [One of the audience suggested that she had ducked the question, but she repeated that rolling out Facebook in China is complex]

What does Facebook look like in 2050 and will it have taken over the world?

– We have no idea but our goal is to empower people and not control them.

Why did Facebook pay a PR company to smear Google re. its privacy controls?

– We’ve put out a statement about this and we’re comfortable with our statement.

– [The audience laughed at her doublethink and, on being pushed, she said “We won’t do that again”.]

Who owns the data on Facebook? What happens to it?

– You own the data but we store it for you [ironic laugh]. It is your data and you can delete it whenever you want.

You said you take privacy seriously but do you really mean that? [There were several questions about privacy pertaining to disbelief that Facebook really delivers on true privacy for its users]

– We 100% believe in total privacy and that you should determine your level of privacy. It’s essential for your users.

– If companies couldn’t hire people who’d got drunk in college there would be no hires ever – period.

You’re on the board of Disney, and Disney now wants to pay some of its staff less than the UK minimum wage and take away their healthcare benefits – what is your view of that?

– This is not a board issue and so it is for Disney to address.

How do you stop Facebook getting too big and stale?

– It is a big challenge. One thing we do is release new functionality every week. Some companies do it once a month but we think by pushing new code out every week it helps keep us fresh.

What is Facebook’s IPO and do you worry the tech-bubble will burst and devalue Facebook?

– We’re not public and so we have the luxury of not having to worry about our valuation.

How much are you missing out on the real-time information and experience of Twitter and when are you going to buy them?

– We think there is a role for Twitter, for us and for loads of other social media companies. We think that you get big [information] distribution with us and the same with Twitter. We don’t have plans to buy them.

What is your policy on behaviour targeting? [This is the practice of storing data for each person and building a profile of them based on what websites they visit.]

– Other companies do behavioural targeting and we don’t. All we know about you is what you tell us yourself.

– We aggregate information, so we can target ‘40 year old women in Luton’ but that’s as far as we go.

Do you have restrictions on how much the people at Facebook can use Facebook [laughs]?

– No we don’t. If you like Facebook, come work with us.

The verdict

At the end the packed audience of 500 people gave Sheryl a raucous applause. While she failed to address the China / Disney / privacy questions adequately (our view, of course) she was highly impressive in her range of examples and her clarity of vision.