Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Old Media Doesn’t Get New Media, Chapter 203: The Sheryl Sandberg Attack

Take one Silicon Valley exec. Who is rich. Who is a woman. Who seems, on the superficial surface at least, to have it all. Mix with high-profile book she has penned about gender issues in the workplace and a social networking effort to organize around. Sprinkle in some fear, some loathing and a generous dollop of startlingly ignorant assertions about how new media works. Bake in the spotlight for a millisecond.

Voila: Sheryl Sandberg Flambé.

Indeed, at this early point in the marketing game of the well-known Facebook COO’s new book, “Lean In,” the unusual level of vitriol aimed at her is, frankly, is eye-opening. While there is plenty that smart people can disagree with in her tome — after all, this is a very hot-button issue — the fact that it has ratcheted up this far before the March 11 publication date says a lot about a lot of things.

Not the least of which is that the relationship between old media and new media is, in the parlance of the huge Silicon Valley social networking company, complicated.

Consider Jodi Kantor’s New York Times article, titled “A Titan’s How-To on Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” which appeared at the end of last week.

As it was crafted, it immediately went right after Sandberg’s “carefully orchestrated media campaign” — leaving aside the pertinent fact that in this noisy day and age, every big media launch is carefully orchestrated — and then immediately took issue with her effort to start “Lean In Circles”

Oddly described by Kantor, the site is one on “which women can share experiences and follow a Sandberg-crafted curriculum for career success.” Actually, it was a little more complex than that, with major contributions from the highly regarded Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University to this effort.

Then, Kantor uses a sensationally arrogant-sounding Sandberg quote — “I always thought I would run a social movement” — from a recent video interview. As it turns out, though, it’s only a partial lift and almost totally out of context.

In full, it is about how Sandberg thought she would be a do-gooder who would doubtlessly not make much money: “I always thought I would run a social movement, which meant basically work in a nonprofit. I never thought I would work in the corporate sector.”

Then comes my favorite part from the Times piece: “With less than three weeks until launch — which will include a spread in Time magazine and splashy events like a book party at Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s home — organizers cannot say how many more groups may sprout up.”

Hmm. Hmm. They can’t say. Wow. Perhaps that’s because Lean In Circles have not started yet? You know, the service has not opened and therefore no one is using it.

Could Instagram have said how that piles of would use it before it started, especially since its first iteration was a dud? Nope! Could YouTube have known “Oppa Gangnam Style” was going to be a ginormous hit? Nope! Could the New York Times have known that it might have wanted to get ahead of this Internet thing before it decimated their business? Nope!

Here’s the thing — you can’t really fail before you start, but perhaps that’s just a Silicon Valley thing.

Let’s be clear, the “Lean In Circles” might turn out to be a big zero and perhaps Sandberg cannot compel women to use them. It could be an online ghost town. Or it could be very popular.

Who knows? All I am certain of is that it will — as the success of most online products depend on — be about whether people find whatever Sandberg is offering useful.

Also wrong is an account of Lean In essays that Sandberg has requested from some prominent women, which Kantor underscored asks for happy endings. True, but not quite if you read the whole document, which also says in part:

“Leaning in means pushing through the challenges and going down a path with an uncertain outcome. The path often leads to a positive internal result (newfound confidence, strength or determination) and often an external
reward (promotion, raise or goal achieved.) Leaning back means choosing to stay in a known or comfortable situation. This often leads to an internal
realization (desire to grow, change, consider leaning in the next time) and possibly a negative external result (stagnation, missed opportunities, loss of income.)”

After that, like many pieces so far, the article is all about how rich ladies with big houses and nannies should not lecture to other ladies without them. Perhaps that is so in some contexts and there is no question that her own massive success might be Sandberg’s most potent Achilles heel in trying to get her message out.

But in my reading, book as a whole is less grand and tsk-tsk than I expected and more about the plethora of depressing stats about women in the workplace, as well as some advice that has vaunted her to the top.

Lots of high-profile male execs have done this without the same level of anger directed at them. Thus, even though Sandberg is not the bilious and appalling as Donald Trump, she does not get to pontificate in any way that seems like, you know, she’s had some traction in the workplace — the Treasury Department, Google, Facebook — and might have some good tips to share.

Interesting, though it was not the only media account like this, the Times then followed today with one of the more bizarre and hyperactive columns I have seen of late by Maureen Dowd, who never met a pun she did not abuse mercilessly (and I love a good pun!).

“She has a grandiose plan to become the PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots reigniting the women’s revolution — Betty Friedan for the digital age,” Dowd wrote, also using the out-of-context Sandberg quote again to make her obtuse point. “She seems to think she can remedy social paradigms with a new kind of club — a combo gabfest, Oprah session and corporate pep talk. (Where’s the yoga?).”

Unpacking all those disparate images is a task for someone else with more energy than I have, but it becomes less comical when she goes all digital media expert.

“People come to a social movement from the bottom up, not the top down,” wrote Dowd. “Just because digital technology makes connecting possible doesn’t mean you’re actually reaching people.”

Um, no, it does not — and I am not sure who said it did. Although I am certain Sandberg knows more than Dowd about reaching people online and the potential for getting them to act.

Still, it is just a start and Sandberg does not seem to be saying otherwise. And perhaps it is a good thing to debate whether book is pushing women meet goals they perhaps cannot.

Or — maybe, just maybe — it is a little more complicated. In fact, it is a lot more complicated — the issue of women at work is a thorny issue –which is why it will be interesting to see if Sandberg’s book and social network will have an impact or not.

To be clear, I have no idea if it will and neither does anyone else. No one thought Facebook would have a billion users (I definitely did not!).

That answer is to come, of course, after what will doubtlessly be a rollout where the turbulence is just beginning.

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” wrote Sandberg in her book.

True that. That’s because, as it turns out, leaning in turns out to mean a very bumpy ride for those who do.

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— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo