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The Internet as the fifth estate? « Previous | |Next »
December 18, 2007

The media are often seen as central to democratic processes: a 'fourth estate ' independent of government and other powerful institutions. Today, however, the Internet and Web are creating a new space for networking people, information and other resources. Does this network of networks have the potential to become an equally important 'fifth estate' which could support greater accountability in politics and the media. Is this plausible? How does this develop the idea of a public sphere? How is the fifth estate different from the fourth estate?

I have come as far as seeing that the Internet is a new kind of space and one that is different from that of the traditional mass media, even when they (News Corp, ABC, Fairfax) step into this space to support their traditional activities. But what kind of space is this new space? In his inaugral lecture as Director of the Oxford Internet Institute William H Dutton develops the idea of the internet as fifth estate. That's a novel idea as it builds on the capacity of advocacy and in its implicit ability to frame political issues.

If society is governed by the predicts: judiciary, executive and parliament, then as Edmund Burke, observed by pointing to the press gallery in British Parliament and exclaiming "and this is the Fourth Estate". Ever since, the term 'Fourth Estate' has represented the media's role as a watchdog of the bureucracy and government by exposing corruption and unfair dealings with complete transparency. Is this what Dutton has in mind when he refers to the fitth estate?

He says:

Some have argued that the Internet is essentially a new medium similar to the traditional media. This has led to a view of the Internet as an adjunct of an evolving Fourth Estate. Others see elements of the Internet – such as the citizen journalist or the blogger – as composing a kind of Fifth Estate. However, both conceptions are tied to an overly limited notion of new digital media as being just a complementary form of news publishing. The Internet is far more than a blogosphere or online digital add-on to the mass media.

Rightly said. Just think of Flickr or Facebook, downloading music or video, or the way people use the Internet to make new friends and, thereby, reconfigure their social networks. This is no passing blogging fad.

Dutton says that internet-enabled, networked individuals often break from existing organizational and institutional networks that are themselves being transformed in Internet space. A good example is internet-enabled, networked individuals breaking away from the walled universities. Dutton adds:

The ability the Internet affords individuals to network within and beyond various institutional arenas in ways that can enhance and reinforce the ‘communicative power’ of ‘networked individuals’ is key. The interplay of change within and between such individual and institutional ‘networks of networks’ lies at the heart of what I am arguing is a distinctive and significant new Fifth Estate.

By enabling a huge range of people across the globe to reconfigure their access to information, people, services and technologies, the Internet and related ICTs have the potential to reshape the communicative power of individuals and groups in numerous ways. But how does this become a fifth estate?

Dutton's argument for this is that people are using the internet for information, have found ways to trust that information through experience (eg. Wikipedia), and that the Internet is crucially enabling individuals to network in new ways that reconfigure and enhance their communicative power. He mentions the media, politics, government online, the workplace and the business firm (eg., Internet-enabled networks that come together to solve a problem) education and research. From this Dutton infers that:

the Internet is becoming not only a new source of information, but also a platform for networking individuals in new Internet-enabled groups that can challenge the influence of other, more established, bases of institutional authority. Moreover, it is robust. As discussed, it can flourish despite a digital divide in access. And it can be a significant force even though only a minority of users are actively producing material for the Internet, as opposed to simply using it.

Duttn acknowledges that the role of the Internet – and of networked individuals – is not uniformly positive, since the open gates of the Internet, which allow in those aspects of the outside world of benefit to the user, also allow those causing harm by intent or accident, including spammers, fraudsters, pornographers, bullies, terrorists, and more.

Dutton's conceptualization of the Fifth Estate turns away from Edmund Burke to Manuel Castells to develop the fifth estate as creating a space of flows, in contrast to a space of places. When you ‘go to’ the Internet, you enter this new space of flows that connects with people and places. This is dramatically different from a physical place, such as this hall. Both are important. Both serve major social roles in shaping the quality of our information environment and they complement one another. Dutton adds:

This space of flows enables a multitude of actors to reconfigure access to information, people, services and technologies.....A key implication of this for society at large is that the Internet can be used to increase the accountability of the other Estates, for instance by being used as a check on the press. It can also be deployed as an alternative source of authority and as a check on other established positions of authority, such as politicians, doctors and academics, by offering alternative sources of information, analysis and opinion to citizens, patients, and students.

Thus through the space of flows, the network of networks, the Internet is enabling the development of a Fifth Estate that is enhancing the accountability of many sectors across all societies is the argument.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 05:11 AM | | Comments (0)
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