June 2, 2017 / 2:52 PM / 3 months ago

Review: Tragedy makes Facebook a better place

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, delivers a speech during a visit in Paris, France, January 17, 2017.Philippe Wojazer

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - In one way, a personal tragedy is making Facebook a better place. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s “Option B,” a moving exploration of grief, emerged from the sudden death of her husband. Top executives rarely reveal so much. She has also changed Facebook’s policies. More so than her earlier best seller, “Lean In,” Sandberg’s new book sets her up as the $450 billion social network's best ambassador.

Two years ago, Sandberg was on vacation with her spouse Dave Goldberg, the popular 47-year-old chief executive of SurveyMonkey. He went to the gym for a routine workout. Hours later he was found in a pool of blood, dead from a cardiac arrhythmia.

On June 3, 2015, Sandberg published on Facebook an account of the emotional aftermath. Over more than 1,700 words, she wrestled with her sorrow and her young children’s pain, while admitting her own mother stayed with her each night as she sobbed herself to sleep. “I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need,” she wrote.

“Option B” is an expansion of the original post that draws upon Sandberg’s personal diaries of her loss. Co-written with Adam Grant, a psychologist and Wharton professor, it’s also peppered with anecdotes of others’ experiences of war, rape and illness, and how each person dealt with the adversity.

There are important data points, too. The death of a partner can be particularly harsh for women who can suddenly find themselves strapped financially. The wage gap, a big theme in Sandberg’s prior book, makes that even worse. Bereavement leave is meager for most people in the workforce. In one concrete response, Facebook has increased the time off it allows to 20 days, sparking interest from other companies.

The most surprising aspect of the book, however, is Sandberg’s openness. This is a woman who graduated from Harvard and its business school, worked at the World Bank, served as chief of staff to U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, became an executive at Google, and now heads operations for a company that rakes in $28 billion in annual revenue. To read that she “worried incessantly that I was a huge burden to everyone and yet depended on their support,” or that her biggest fear is that her son and daughter will never have a happy childhood, is startling in its honesty. Few in the top echelons of corporate America would expose themselves in this way.

Then again, Sandberg works at the world’s largest social-media company, where sharing is encouraged because it is the source of profit. “Option B” and the networks born out of the book serve as a model for how Facebook might want its 2 billion users to see it as a platform to build “collective resilience.”

This is not to say that “Option B” is an exercise in corporate boosterism. Far from it. Sandberg was both praised and faulted for “Lean In.” Many pointed out that her affluence allowed her to assert herself in her jobs while also being a mother, a luxury not available to most people. There is much less room to criticize the message in her latest book. Grief is a great equalizer.

All the same, this is a pivotal moment for Facebook. Its success relies on the network effect, the idea that the more people who use it, the stronger it becomes. The company's news feed is already among the top destinations for digital advertisers because of the size of its audience and the fact people linger. Facebook and Alphabet's Google hold almost 50 percent of the world market.

Since September, though, the firm founded by Mark Zuckerberg has disclosed five different errors in the metrics reported to advertisers. Slow responses to complaints about violent content that included a brutal murder and a suicide are worrisome, too.

Zuckerberg has never been skilled at engaging emotionally. It took him months to acknowledge Facebook’s powerful role sifting U.S. election news. His current tour across America, complete with postcard-like posts, is baffling. Sandberg, however, brings real heart to her own loss and in the process lends some empathy to Facebook, too. It's surely not what "Option B" was meant to achieve, but the book has set her up as the company's No. 1 diplomat.

Breakingviews

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