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Azeem Azhar - the evolution of media and technology is both predictable and unpredictable

For the last fifteen or so years Azeem Azhar has been a key commentator on the intersection of technology and online media. He has worked with both mainstream media companies like Reuters, The Guardian and the BBC alongside social startups like Peerindex and Mink Media. In many different capacities and different guises Azeem has been asked to predict the future, and many people are eager to hear what he has to say.

Azeem’s weekly email Exponential View, which catalogues the week’s key tech issues and the way they may impact on society, has a subscriber base of over 20,000.

Here we quiz him about the way media and technology have developed in the last decade and his work with Scandinavian publisher Schibsted in nurturing startups. 

Going back ten years to 2007? Has the way that media and technology have evolved surprised you, or were there trends that you spotted back then? What has been the most surprising development?

Ten years. Two lifetimes in Internet time. Who could really have predicted just how far Facebook would have travelled? It was just a college network at the time. MySpace was clearly the dominant social platform. Twitter was well, who knew what it was. The first iPhone only went on sale at the end of June in 2007.

So what has changed? Well, everything.

What is surprising is the Facebook did conquer all and executed so well that it vanquished MySpace, saw off attacks from Twitter, successfully made the step across to mobile, and through some brilliant buying held on to Whatsapp and Instagram. And with that they have built a firm that is in some ways likely to be as dominant if not more so than Google to the media consumption landscape. (Google for all its strengths has proved that it doesn't really get attention and media in the way Facebook has).

The growth of the mobile and its ultimate primacy is also somewhat surprising. I was probably switched on to mobile as the 'next thing' by 2009, by which point I had started reading books on my iPhone (not something I do know) but even them my strength of conviction was not to found a company build on mobile. Rather I founded a firm (PeerIndex) built on the social wave.

By 2007, I was certain social networks would be important. I had been an early user of SixDegrees and of Ryze and Friendster. My user number on LinkedIn is 1654. I had launched a social network blogging platform back in 2003 which hadn't done well. And had prototyped social search engines that used friend relationships as ranking factors in previous years. I saw them filling in gap in the communications matrix. Phones were very good for one-to-one communication. Media was very good for one-to-very-many. Blogging platforms like Blogger and TypePad occupied the one-to-several niche but there was a clear gap in the few-to-few network: where social media would play a part.

What I didn't realise is that all the things we thought we would do with social media, such as transitive trust, reputation currencies and social search, we haven't done. Instead, social media has become a vapid race-to-the-bottom where gamification commoditises our attention and our physical lives. Oh, and that's before you get to Twitter. My Twitter experience where I track some of the best experts in a wide range of topics is reasonable but far from the norm.

Blockchain-based systems, still in their infancy, may yet yield some of the trust and reputation benefits.



Describe your current work with Schibsted? What type of startups do you look for? Do you think that Europe is lagging behind the US in media start ups? What areas are ripe for innovation?

Schibsted is a world-leader in media houses and online classifieds. We look to find companies we can work with who support either core technologies that will improve the user experience or with interesting perspectives on classifieds or marketplaces. We have a successful venture business in Sweden which has backed emerging winners like Prisjakt (price comparison) and Lendoo (personal financial services).

Europe has some interesting media startups but the US market remains more mature.

What are the key things that media publishers should bear in mind when working with startups?

Startups are small. Startups thrive on data and feedback. Startups are figuring out what they need to do. 

The only way they can succeed if dealing with them takes into account those key attributes. They are not SMEs or small businesses, they are startups, learning, discovery and cock-ups are part of the game.

Any large company needs to recognise that they failure modes of working with startups are legion. You can literally hug them to death. You can ask them to do things that don't really help their learning and discovery process.

You publish a weekly email newsletter called Exponential View. What type of topics do you cover? Why did you opt for email as a format? Do you think that media publishers under value email as an outreach tool? 

Email is intimate and immediate. Since five mobile apps dominate all usage and no-one remembers websites any more, email is a great medium for making sure your audience remembers who you are. Publishers are wising up to it - firms like Axios trying newsletters more often.

Exponential View is about the technologies that matter today and how they will impact their lives. It is interdisciplinary and deliberately broad  to appeal to engineers, founders, investors, academics, and those in government. And it has a readership and community across all those domains. We just past 20,000 subscribers and consistently achieve a 50% opening rate.


Exponential View ()




You are also an authority on Artificial Intelligence. What do you make of the way that some media companies have harnessed AI so far? How much do you think it will impact on the future of the media? What should publishers be doing now to prepare themselves?

I don't think many media companies have harnessed AI, unless you count Facebook as a media company. I am quite impressed with some things we have done at Schibsted, in particularly around personalising front pages using user behaviour data. The team here is pretty first rate.

How else do you think media will evolve in the coming years?

As we discussed in the first question, the last ten years were predictable and unpredictable. I think that will remain true for the next 10.

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