A View from Jessica Leber
A Social Networking Technology Born Female
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s push to put more women in leadership roles has spawned a new social software tool.
To the extent that a company has a personality, much of Facebook’s can be traced back to the fact that its creator and most of its early team were nerdy Harvard programmers. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg started Facemash, the very first version of Facebook, as a tool that upset many campus women (and men) by comparing their looks in online photos that he did not have permission to repost. At the time, the Harvard Crimson cited campus groups Fuerza Latina and the Association of Black Harvard Women voicing their anger to a familiarly apologetic Zuckerberg. He took the site down under pressure, but the rest is history.
This aggressive “act now, ask later” approach to existing privacy norms was present at the outset of company that went on to essentially set our baseline conception of what a social network looks like today.
It’s the exact appoach one might expect from a programmer who got his start coding away in his dark dorm room. But what if he had followed Silicon Valley startup guru Paul Graham’s recent advice (on what might produce the next Facebook) and asked the “queen bees” of Harvard’s sororities what social tools they needed instead? Or, way better, what if Facebook were founded by a sorority sister herself? What would it look like and how would it spread?
It’s clearly not possible to go back in time.
But perhaps it might bear more similarities to the online software used by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and her nonprofit LeanIn.org, the group she formed to help women act on the ideas in her recent career-advice book, Lean In. The book documents the myriad ways that women hold themselves back from leadership roles in a male-dominated corporate world and has been controversial in many quarters.
The Lean In-style social network is a small “circle” of eight to 10 people who support each other’s goals. Included for each circle are tools for scheduling meetings, creating and discussing content, sending messages and other communications, and analyzing data, as described this week in the New York Times.
The creator of the software is a startup called Mightybell that has been around since 2011. Now, Mightybell is planning to offer the software as a broader commercial service to help small groups organize themselves. “What if an influencer, or a brand, or an organization, could go from having passive followers to an active army? It’s like nothing that’s been offered before,” Mightybell founder Gina Bianchini told the Times.
It’s not easy to innovate in the world of social networking today. Many platforms are established, both in the consumer and business world, and so it is often thought to be too difficult to attract users to an entirely new effort.
But a tool that builds on existing groups and networks may have a better shot at gaining traction, perhaps especially one that is shaped by women. That’s because women are the dominant users of social networks today, including Facebook’s. But at most large Internet companies, as Sheryl Sandberg’s book details, the leaders and product teams are still mostly men.