Perhaps my favorite talk at TEDWomen was the one by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. I was prepared to give a talk on social media and when I found out she was in the line-up, and basically providing a keynote for the conference, I was worried that my presentation would feel like stale news by the time I hit the stage during the last session of the last day.
I was relieved when it became clear that Sandberg wasn’t going to talk social media at all: instead, she took the harder road – explaining to a group of successful, driven women why women were still underachieving in global politics and business. The video of her talk has caught on like wildfire and now the venerable New Yorker has published a thoughtful profile of her by Ken Auletta that provides some great food for thought about Sandberg and the future of social media.
My research on social media is driven by my interest in dismantling the dehumanizing and rather absurd demographic models that drive the global media business. Once we manage to find a way to interpret the trail of information that everyone leaves behind them in their pursuit of God knows what on the Internet, we’ll be able to come up with much more rational methods of segmenting and understanding audiences.
And so I was delighted to read this passage about TV in the New Yorker piece, featuring quotes from Sandberg’s colleague, Chris Cox:
“You go home at night and there’s nine hundred and ninety-nine channels. . . . The real problem in that world is: What should I watch?” Perhaps you could read TV Guide, perhaps you could type “best Thursday sitcom” into Google, or perhaps you could scan some newspaper reviews. Cox wants you to be able to see on your screen what your Facebook friends are watching. “You should turn it on and it should say, ‘Fourteen of your friends liked “Entourage” this week. Click to watch.’ ” The idea is for Facebook to “tune in to everything around you,” he said. “We call it social design.”
Another thing people call it is “social TV,” which integrates social media technology with old-school real-time television viewing. One reason the networks are excited about this movement is because they are desperate to make TV watching “appointment viewing” once again, because it’s more likely in those instances that audiences will be exposed to ads. And so, not only will social media provide us with entertainment options more suited to our peculiar sensibilities, media companies will also play the role of matchmaker, bringing together geographically dispersed fellow travelers to enjoy one another’s company.
But there are different ways to play matchmaker. As Auletta points out, Google tries to help you along using the “wisdom of crowds” while Facebook uses your friends’ preferences in order to guide you to appealing destinations (where you might just buy something). Finding the taste community most suited to you is a tricky proposition: while the crowd may contain your soul-mates, they are about as easy to find as needles in haystacks. And the comparatively miniscule group of random friends and acquaintances you’ve managed to corral over a lifetime is probably not the best focus group for determining your current pleasures. I think the real work in leveraging social networks to find what you’re looking for – to satisfy your myriad desires for excellent hiking socks or the book you’ll end up reading every few years for the rest of your life – will be finding a way to calibrate the distance between your typical preferences and those of the anonymous crowd, on the one hand, and your own “circles” (in Google+ lingo). The company that finds a way to help us do that, may just end up remapping our world.
Wouldn’t it be fabulous if Sandberg – a former Google executive – were the gal to do it? She certainly seems to have the chutzpah … though Auletta goes out of his way to find the chink in her can-do armor (a requirement for New Yorker profiles, I believe). Pat Mitchell, the animating spirit of TEDWomen, made a remarkable impression on me at the event and so I was not surprised to discover in Auletta’s profile that Sandberg considers her a mentor. Much of Sandberg’s TEDWomen talk was about women’s temptation to lean back and to question whether they deserve more authority and more power. When Auletta tells Mitchell that Sandberg is not concerned about not being on Facebook’s small, all male board, “Mitchell affectionately said, ‘I’m going to have to sit with her and revisit this.'”
If a powerhouse like Sandberg still needs a talking-to about her career trajectory and her appetite for power, I can only imagine how badly I’m missing that mark. Hmmmm … Maybe it’s time to update my LinkedIn profile