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      The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks



            The rise of the press, radio, television and other mass media enabled the development of an independent institution: the ‘Fourth Estate’, central to pluralist democratic processes. The growing use of the Internet and related digital technologies is creating a space for networking individuals in ways that enable a new source of accountability in government, politics and other sectors. This paper explains how this emerging ‘Fifth Estate’ is being established and why this could challenge the influence of other more established bases of institutional authority. It discusses approaches to the governance of this new social and political phenomenon that could nurture the Fifth Estate’s potential for supporting the vitality of liberal democratic societies.

            Main article text

            The Emergence of a New Pluralist Democratic Institution

            The historical conception of feudal societies being divided into ‘estates of the realm’ can be up‐dated in a way that is useful for understanding developments in contemporary network societies. In pre‐revolutionary France and England, for example, these estates were identified as the clergy, nobility and commons.2 In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke (as reported by Thomas Carlyle) identified the press as a Fourth Estate, arguing:

            … there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or witty saying; it is a literal fact—very momentous to us in these times.3

            Since then, radio, television and other mass media have been enfolded with the press into the Fourth Estate, which has become an important independent democratic institution. The passing of feudal society has led many to redefine the estates. In the US, for instance, the estates have come to be most often linked to the separation of powers in legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. But the press remains identified as a Fourth Estate in many liberal democratic societies.

            In the twenty‐first century, a new institution is emerging with some characteristics similar to the Fourth Estate, but with sufficiently distinctive and important features to warrant its recognition as a new Fifth Estate. This is being built on the growing use of the Internet and related information and communication technologies (ICTs) in ways that are enabling ‘networked individuals’4 to reconfigure access to alternative sources of information, people and other resources. Such ‘networks of networks’5 enable the networked individuals to move across, undermine and go beyond the boundaries of existing institutions, thereby opening new ways of increasing the accountability of politicians, press, experts and other loci of power and influence. These are neither personal nor institutional networks, but networked individuals. This reflects many attributes of Manuel Castells’ conception of a ‘network society’6 and which are similar to what have been called ‘Internet‐enabled networks’.7

            This paper explores the nature and implications of the Fifth Estate, highlighting why it has the potential to be as important in the twenty‐first century as the Fourth Estate has been since the eighteenth century. It begins by placing the notion of the Fifth Estate within a wider conception of the societal implications of the Internet, and then sketches more details of its characteristics and uses, based on evidence across a range of research findings. It concludes by looking at the main threats to the vitality of the new estate and explores the governance approaches that could help to maintain and enhance its role.

            The Internet as Distinct from the Mass Media

            Some have argued that computer‐based communication systems like the Internet are essentially a new medium, building on traditional media.8 This media‐centric view has led to the Internet being seen as simply an adjunct of an evolving Fourth Estate. Many of those who acknowledge that some aspects of the Internet compose something distinctive also have a limited notion of new digital media as being essentially a complementary form of news publishing—a blogosphere or online digital add‐on to the mass media.9

            The Politics of the Internet in Society

            The Internet’s broad social roles in government and politics have similarities with that of traditional media. However, it differs from traditional media, particularly in opening up to greater social accountability many other institutional arenas, from everyday life to science. This needs to be understood in the context of some common views on the political role of the Internet for society at large as being perhaps irrelevant, deterministic or socially shaped. These can be grouped into three main perspectives:

            • 1.

              An emphasis on technical novelty. A view of the Internet as a ‘passing fad’10 focuses on the supposed ephemeral nature of the Internet in comparison with other institutions and previous media. For a time, this included the major players in the field of information technology11 who were slow to recognize the increasing importance of this form of networking. With time, this passing‐fad thesis has become less credible as Internet use has continued to grow and diversify around the world. However, it continues to arise around particular themes, such as regarding the Internet as just a transient novelty in political campaigns and elections.

            • 2.

              Technologies of freedom v. control. One claim is that the Internet tends to democratize access to information and undermine hierarchies. For example, de Sola Pool12 saw Internet‐based networks as inherently democratic ‘technologies of freedom’ through which individuals can network with people, information, services and technologies in ways that follow and reinforce their personal self‐interests. In contrast, others13 contend that institutions will adopt, design and use the Internet to enhance their control of existing institutional structures and organizational arrangements. This is illustrated by e‐government initiatives that enhance existing institutional arrangements; or in the dystopian vision14 of a ‘surveillance society’ where pervasive networks of CCTV cameras and other digital means are used to monitor and control citizens’ behaviour.

            • 3.

              The Internet as a ‘network of networks’. This conception moves on from the largely technologically deterministic freedom v. control debate to accept that the Internet can support and reinforce many different forms of networking,15 each shaped by its stakeholders to reinforce or challenge the interests of individuals or organizations that form the Fifth Estate. These networks provide connections not only in the one‐to‐many pattern of the mass media, but also one‐to‐one, many‐to‐one, many‐to‐many, and so on.

            The Fifth Estate: Interplay between Individual and Institutional Networks

            Enhancing Citizens’ Communicative Power

            The view outlined here of the social shaping of ICTs by developers, users and regulators highlights why technologically‐deterministic thinking that extrapolates the societal implications of a technology from knowing some of its key features has been a major factor contributing to the generally poor track record of many forecasts in this field.16 However, as explained in this paper, the social shaping view enables the implications of technical change to be revealed by observing patterns of Internet use and impact over time. For example, networks can be designed to operate as horizontal peer‐to‐peer communications—or can be created for much more hierarchical and centralized structures. Their aims can be to emphasize broad social objectives or to bolster a more individualist viewpoint by delivering entertainment for a ‘daily‐me’ of news or entertainment.17 More generally, the networks comprising the Fifth Estate have two key distinctive and important characteristics:

            • 1.

              The ability to support institutions and individuals to enhance their ‘communicative power’18—the use of ICTs to form networks that can then lead to real‐world power‐shifts, but which does not mean the Internet on its own can give new real power to its users. This enhancement of communicative power is achieved by affording individuals opportunities to network within and beyond various institutional arenas.

            • 2.

              The provision of capabilities that enable the creation of networks of individuals which have a public, social benefit (e.g. through social networking websites).

            The self‐selected, Internet‐enabled individuals who have a primarily social aim in their networking activities often break from existing organizational and institutional networks, which themselves are frequently being transformed in Internet space. For example, local government officials can engage with individuals on community websites within and beyond their constituencies.

            Reconfiguring Access to the Fifth Estate

            The Internet and related ICTs can play a central role in ‘reconfiguring access’19 to people, information, services and other resources. This helps to explain how patterns of digital divides and choices can change the communicative power of individuals, groups and nations. Such an understanding cannot be used to forecast the societal implications of the Internet. Instead, it indicates that outcomes are inherently unpredictable, at micro and macro levels, because they depend on the interaction of numerous strategic and non‐strategic choices made by actors about how they seek to shape access to and from the outside world, in what could be called an ‘ecology of games’.20 This is shown, for instance, in the strategies of government agencies, politicians, lobbying groups, news media, bloggers and others trying to gain access to citizens over the Internet.

            The Internet can reconfigure access in two fundamental ways. First, it can change the way we do things, such as how we get information, how we communicate with people and how we obtain services and access technologies. Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, its use can alter the outcomes of these activities. It changes what we know, whom we know, whom we keep in close touch and what services we obtain (e.g. through e‐government), as well as what technologies we use and what know‐how we require to employ them. ICTs can also reconfigure access by: changing cost structures, eliminating or introducing gatekeepers and expanding or contracting the geography of access. They can also overcome geographical barriers, as the Internet could make geography more important because it could enable people to be where they need to be to have face‐to‐face communication.

            Particular attention in the context of the Fifth Estate needs to be given to the ability of digital networks of networks to reconfigure access by giving greater or lesser control to users (citizens, viewers, readers and consumers). An appreciation of how the use and diffusion of technologies is socially shaped reveals why the development of any particular platform has not been inevitable, including those supportive of a Fifth Estate. Instead, they have developed over time through the unpredictable interaction of strategic or unintentional choices by many actors with many different competing and complementary objectives.

            The outcomes of decisions in this ecology have opened up opportunities for individuals to network in varied ways. This can blur the boundaries of households, organizations, institutions and nations as the networks enable individuals—not only institutions—to create local and global networks. That is shown in the mobilization of political and financial support around the world for causes as varied as climate change, promotion of terrorism and struggles against state control.

            Earlier Conceptions of the Fifth Estate

            There are alternative but related conceptions to the idea of the Fifth Estate. For instance, the seminal idea of the ‘public sphere’ articulated by Jürgen Habermas21 offers valuable insights, but is too closely tied to a romantic view of the past and therefore not able to capture the rise of an entirely new sphere of influence. The notion of an ‘information commons’ and its many variants is often used by many others to characterize aspects of the new virtual Internet space, especially open sharing of information for free or at low cost.22 However, although the Internet and Web may be packed with free material, they also contain much that is owned—trademarked, copyrighted, proprietary, licensed, etc. For example, the personal computer is a key component of the Internet’s infrastructure23 and is typically owned by individuals or organizations.

            This paper’s description of this new space is anchored in a social science perspective, but has been supported across other disciplines. Leading computer scientists and engineers have made similar observations, for example in the way a key creator of the Web, Tim Berners‐Lee, and his Web Science colleagues speak of the Web as an ‘engineered space’ that creates a distributed ‘information space’.24 However, they realize this space is being engineered by an increasingly diverse set of actors, including users, and for a wide range of purposes. They also acknowledge that many of these emergent outcomes were not those originally engineered for the Web by its designers. This has led them to call for more multidisciplinary collaboration with the social sciences.

            Evidence of the Fifth Estate

            The following sections give a glimpse of the mounting evidence from studies around the world that are identifying patterns of use of the Internet which lend substance to the reality of the establishment of a Fifth Estate. After a discussion on background trends in everyday use of the Internet, specific institutional spheres are explored. Important sources of data used include the internationally collaborative World Internet Project (WIP),25 which covers more than 20 countries. This includes the Oxford Internet Surveys (OxIS)26 in Britain.

            Everyday Use of the Internet

            Digital Choices and the Diffusion of the Internet

            Evidence for the basis for a Fifth Estate can be seen in changing patterns of everyday Internet use around the world, as indicated in WIP studies. This use continues to grow in number, variety of applications and spread around the globe, pointing to the weakness of the proposition that the Internet is a passing fad. In the UK, for instance, the proportion of the population over 14 using the Internet rose from about one‐third in 2000 to two‐thirds in 2007. That pattern is reflected worldwide to greater or lesser degrees, and there is no indication of a subsequent fall in Internet use.

            Nevertheless, there are still important divides in Internet access within and between nations and regions, and groups within them. Countries in Scandinavia and North America have more of their population online, but many more have far less, such as across the global South. Along the access divide, the economic ‘haves’ generally get more access to the Internet than the ‘have‐nots’. This underpins concerns that the Internet reinforces socio‐economic inequalities in society. Despite these continuing digital divides, the Internet has achieved a critical mass that enables networked individuals to become a significant force. The existence of a Fifth Estate is not dependent on universal access, but upon reaching a critical mass of users.

            Studies such as WIP have also shown that social and economic status does not explain all patterns of adoption and use.27 In addition, the making of ‘digital choices’28 about whether or not to use the Internet also comes into play. For instance, many people choose not to use the Internet even when they have opportunities to do so. It may be generally understandable that the more senior citizens are significantly less likely to use the Internet than younger generations who have appropriate skills and greater familiarity with the technology. However, many older people in homes with access to the technology and other support still do not find the motivation to go online. The Internet plays such a critical role in society that these disparities and lack of interest should not be seen as simply an example of consumers making different choices about products. Digital divides and choices have an impact on the nature and role of the Fifth Estate.

            Trust in the Centrality of the Internet as a New ‘Space of Flows’

            The Internet has become central to everyday life for many people in many societies. The core of Internet uses has been communication, as shown by the continuing key role of e‐mail. It also rivals the traditional media, government and business as the prime place to go not only for information and services, but also conviviality and entertainment. More recently, what is known as ‘Web 2.0’ has become an important tool for social networking and meeting new people, through services like Facebook, SecondLife, YouTube and MySpace.

            As the use of broadband grows,29 so does the Internet as a popular venue to go to for entertainment (e.g. for downloading music or video, playing online games, viewing television and listening to the radio). Frequency of use of the Internet has also increased rapidly, with a significant majority of users accessing the Internet as a routine part of their daily life.

            As well as becoming a critical infrastructure of everyday life, the Internet is networking information and people in ways never before possible. For example, OxIS found in 2007 that in the UK the Internet was the first or second most common place users would first choose to go for information across a range of tasks, such as looking for the name of their MP, getting information about taxes or looking for information about local schools. People increasingly go to the Internet, rather than to a place or institution.

            The ‘Space of Flows’

            The developments highlighted here are illustrative of what Castells calls a new ‘space of flows’.30 Users usually do not go to a particular place on the Internet, but increasingly rely on search engines to find information to find what could be located anywhere in the world. This is significant because governments, libraries, newspapers, universities and other institutions are beginning to realize that an increasing number of people are choosing not to come to them specifically for information and some services, but instead are going to a search engine on the Internet.

            A frequent response from traditional institutions, such as the Fourth Estate, is to suggest that they will retain their central position because of the trust they have built over the years. However, users trust what they find on the Internet about as much as, or more than, they trust broadcast news or the newspapers.31 Generally, the more experience people have with the Internet, the more they develop a ‘learned level’ of trust in the information they find and the people they meet online. They remain sceptical, with more educated individuals relatively more so, but the most distrustful are those who have never used the Internet. This suggests that the Internet is an ‘experience technology’.32 As experience online continues to build, more users are likely to develop such a learned trust. This will make the Internet as a space of flows even more the place to go for information, for making contact with other people and for finding services and entertainment.

            Use of the Internet in Key Institutional Spheres

            There are complementary patterns to the use of the Internet in everyday life across various other institutional arenas, such as those identified in Table 1. In all of these, existing institutional actors are trying to use the Internet and Web in various e‐initiatives designed to reinforce and enhance the effectiveness of their operations and services.

            Table 1. A categorization of networked institutions and individuals
            ArenaNetworked individuals of the Fifth EstateNetworked institutions of the other estates
            Governance and democracyWeb‐based political movements (e.g. Moveon.org)e‐government, e‐democracy
            Press and mediaBloggers, online news aggregators, Wikipedia contributorsOnline journalism, radio and TV
            Business and commercePeer‐to‐peer file sharing (e.g. music downloads), collaborative network organizationsOnline business‐to‐business, business‐to‐consumer (e.g. e‐shopping, e‐banking)
            Work and the organizationSelf‐selected work collaborations, open source software creation and distribution, systems for co‐creationFlatter networked structures, networking to create flexible work location and times
            EducationInformal learning via the Internet, checking facts and information, teacher assessmentVirtual universities, multimedia classrooms, online courses
            ResearchCollaboration across disciplinary, institutional and national boundariesInstitutional IT services, online grant and proposal submissions

            The Internet is crucially enabling individuals in each arena to network in new ways, as a type of Fifth Estate that helps them to reconfigure and enhance their communicative power. This is achieved by those involved in a sphere—such as medical professionals or patients—going outside their respective institutional sphere to reach alternative sources of information and services over the Internet. Institutions rooted in the other estates are also being networked in new ways, such as through the opening of new online communication channels by print and broadcast media. In addition, institutional networking is supporting strategic organizational shifts in activities such as e‐government, e‐commerce and e‐learning.

            There is growing overlap and interaction between these networks, with individuals in institutions participating in ones that enable them to connect to networked individuals outside their institution. In public, private and voluntary sectors, organizations must begin to understand that people will not necessarily go directly to their organization for the information or services they want—even when that organization is the responsible body. They go to the Internet first, where they can search a network of information distributed around the world. For instance, this enables some patients to visit a doctor armed with information gathered from the Web.

            Alongside individual users, governments, business and NGOs can contribute to this distributed network of networks, but it is becoming increasingly separate and independent from any single government department, agency, NGO, business or other entity. For such reasons, all organizations need to consider how they can reconfigure services in ways that allow them to be provided more efficiently online. They should also identify what services and information they need to provide, taking account of the capabilities and resources they are best positioned to provide and what information is already being provided well by others, including over the Internet.

            The following sections discuss the implications of the Fifth Estate in the key arenas identified in Table 1.

            Government and Democracy on the Line

            Many administrations have made major strides in putting public information and services online, even though they have not generally kept up with the commercial sector.33 This means that citizens and businesses can go online to complete tax returns, apply and pay for some local services or licences—and much more. There are also important initiatives aimed at developing e‐government services.34 The growth in this kind of Internet use is evident in the way, between 2005 and 2007, significantly more Britons—although still not a majority—started to go to the Internet for information about local or central government, to pay taxes, to learn about government policy or to contact a politician.35

            In political campaigns, elections and democratic engagements, many still view the Internet as largely irrelevant or marginal, while others argue that it is likely to undermine democratic institutions.36 Some critics view e‐democracy primarily as an innovation that could erode traditional institutions of representative deliberative democracy, by offering direct ‘point and click’ participation in public policy‐making. Others see e‐democracy initiatives like gathering and delivering signatures for online e‐petitions as an ineffectual, minor technical novelty. However, each era has its own version of this threat, such as the way interactive cable communication raised concerns over so‐called ‘push‐button democracy’.37

            The Fifth Estate’s network of networks can enable political movements to be orchestrated among opinion leaders and political activists in ‘Internet time’, which can be far quicker than real‐world time. This provides a novel means for holding politicians and mainstream institutions accountable through the online interaction between ever‐changing networks of individuals, who form and re‐form continuously depending on the issue that is generating the particular network. A dramatic example is the use of texting after the 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings to alert people to anti‐government rallies, which challenged the government’s claims and contributed to unseating José María Aznar’s Partido Popular (PP) administration.38 In the UK, many e‐petition signatures posted to the Prime Minister opposing the expansion of road charging schemes may not have changed policy, but it forced the Government39 to reconsider and explain its case for moving ahead on this issue.

            Politicians are increasingly seeking to use the Internet and Web to engage with citizens, including finding new sources of funding.40 Some are entering Fifth Estate spaces, for instance by creating a presence on Facebook or SecondLife. In addition, numerous individual political activists41 are posting their own opinions in blogs, websites or social networking sites.

            The Press and Mass Media

            The traditional media of the Fourth Estate has sometimes criticized the Internet for eroding the quality of the public’s information environment and undermining the integrative role of the media in society. One concern is that the individuals who use the Internet to produce much online content are amateurs who are spewing misinformation or trivial non‐information, while marginalizing high‐quality journalistic coverage.42 Another critique is that, despite having a vast array of content at their fingertips, Internet users will choose to access only a narrow spectrum related to what most interests them, creating ‘echo chambers’ in which their own personal prejudices will be reinforced rather than challenged.43

            However, these views ignore the degree to which all communication technologies are two‐edged swords. For instance, they dismiss some of the same weaknesses of the traditional mass media, such as the focus on negative news stories. More importantly, there is also often an unjustified assumption that the Internet will substitute for, rather than complement, traditional media. Many Internet users read online newspapers or news services, although not always the same newspaper as they read offline. In these ways, the Internet can be realistically seen as a source of news that in part complements, or even helps to sustain, the Fourth Estate. At the same time, citizen journalists, bloggers, politicians, government agencies, researchers and other online sources provide a related, but independent, and often competing alternative.

            For instance, Salam Pax,44 the ‘Baghdad Blogger’, helped to change the media agenda on the war in Iraq by using his enhanced communicative power to present to a worldwide audience a local Iraqi perspective that could not find a strong voice in the mainstream Fourth Estate, which later gave him a platform. In contrast, the press ignored a long, complex blog on the counter‐insurgency in Iraq that lent support to keeping Coalition Forces in Iraq for a time, although this view became increasingly visible through a grassroots movement using e‐mail and other blogs.45

            Work and the Boundaries of the Firm

            The Fifth Estate has a crucial transformative potential in the workplace and other levels in the business firm and other organizations. Internet‐enabled networks allow networked individuals to address a variety of problems through collaborative network organizations,46 also known as ‘distributed problem‐solving networks’. Successful examples of such organizations include open source software produced by creative arrangements of distributed expertise,47 and the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, which has become widely used and trusted despite the controversy over the merits of its creation through open inputs from Internet users.48 Internet users not only read Wikipedia or use open source software, but are exercising their Fifth Estate communicative power to help to co‐produce these and a host of other products, services and information.49

            Most firms do not choose to use these networks because they may blur the boundaries and operations of the firm. Instead, individuals are choosing to join CNOs to enhance their own productivity, performance or esteem. However, organizations are trying to understand how such innovations can be exploited for the benefit of the enterprise as a whole, and not simply the individual user.50

            Education and Research

            E‐learning networks can move beyond the boundaries of the classroom and university. Many of these follow and reinforce existing institutional structures (e.g. with the teacher as the primary gatekeeper in a multimedia classroom or virtual learning environment). Nevertheless, students are linking with one another, including worldwide, through the email lists, social networking sites, etc. in ways that enable them to challenge their teachers by bringing in other authorities and views. When done in real time, this can be a positive force or a disruption in the classroom, depending on how well preparations have been made to harness these learning networks.

            Likewise, universities are building campus grids, digital library collections and institutional repositories to maintain and enhance the productivity and competitiveness of the institution. At the same time, researchers are collaborating more than ever before through Internet‐enabled networking,51 often across institutional and national boundaries.52 These researchers are generally more likely to go to an Internet search engine before they go to their library; as likely to use their personal computer to support network‐enabled collaboration as meet their colleagues in the next office; and tend to post work on their websites and blogs rather than in institutional repositories. Indeed, freely available social networking sites offer tools for collaboration that could be as, or more, useful to researchers than systems for collaboration in which universities and governments have invested much money.

            Academics are engaged in their own Fifth Estate, for instance by online mobilization around local issues (e.g. university governance) as well as more international topics (e.g. copyright and open science). Checks and balances on more established academic institutional structures are being broadened on the Internet, for instance with a growing sense of accountability to the often anonymous blogosphere of fellow academics.

            Conclusions: Sustaining Democratic Vitality through the Fifth Estate

            A New Space of Flows: Implications for Governance and Democracy

            The conceptualization of the Fifth Estate in this paper builds on Castells’ depiction of the Internet as a ‘space of flows’, in contrast to a space of places. When you ‘go to’ the Internet, you enter the new space that connects with people and places. This is significantly different from a physical place, although they complement each other in shaping the quality of our information environment.

            This space of flows enables a multitude of actors to reconfigure access to information, people, services and technologies. That can reinforce existing institutions, such as when the government posts information and documents online. It can also enable individuals to be at the centre of their own personal networks (e.g. students at the centre of their own learning network, including friends and school or university resources in addition to the wider treasury of knowledge accessible through the Web). Individuals can also network in ways that constitute the Fifth Estate as an independent source of social accountability across multiple arenas.

            The evidence highlighted in this paper is the tip of a larger and growing research base that indicates the Fifth Estate is a robust concept. This is flourishing despite a digital divide in access, and with only a minority of users actively producing material for the Internet as opposed to simply using it. The Fifth Estate allows networked individuals to employ the Internet to increase the accountability of the other Estates, for instance by challenging government policies and Fourth Estate sources. It can also be deployed as an alternative source of authority to professional expertise by offering citizens, patients, students and others alternative sources of information, analysis and opinion.

            Threats to the Fifth Estate

            The Fifth Estate faces a number of threats, related to each of the other estates. Its Internet‐enabled networks therefore need to be identified and better understood if they are to be protected and fostered as a means for realizing the growing potential of the Internet.

            The Internet’s role in networking individuals is a double‐edged sword. It opens gates to allow in those aspects of the outside world of benefit to the user, but this also brings in those causing harm by intent or accident. The Internet can be used to establish a strong Internet presence as a resource for recruiting, funding and magnifying the image of social and political movements with positive aims as well as extremist violent and hate groups. The Fifth Estate could undermine valuable institutions, or become a conservative force by establishing ever more checks and balances. Although such dangers are offset by a similarly long list of advantages, the thrust of the critique remains—that the Internet can empower both the malicious and the well intentioned.

            This double‐edged nature of the Internet is the source of some of the main threats to the Fifth Estate from the established estates (and the lay public, which Burke might have called the Mob). The modern equivalent of the First Estate clergy could be seen as the public intellectuals and critics who undermine the value of the Internet by depicting it as a space over‐occupied by an ill‐informed, ill‐disciplined ‘cult of the amateur’.53 The power base of twenty‐first century ‘nobility’ is reflected in economic elites, for example global corporations competing to dominate and commercialize Internet spaces, such as the ‘Edisons of the digital age’54 who seek to create vertically integrated ‘clouds’ of ‘giant information utilities’ equivalent to the power utilities of an earlier era.

            Government—the Third Estate—is increasingly aware of the potential power of the Fifth Estate to challenge its authority. In some countries, the response has been to develop various techniques of filtering, regulation and other controls to constrain and block Internet access.55 As discussed above, the Fourth Estate overlaps with the Fifth in some complementary ways. Traditional media are also competing with, co‐opting and imitating the Internet’s space of flows. Finally, the ‘mob’ of citizens, audiences and consumers, together with spammers, virus writers and hackers, are enhancing their communicative power by entering the new space of flows. Table 2 summarizes these threats.

            Table 2. Threats to the Fifth Estate from established institutions
            Traditional estateModern parallelType of threat
            1st: ClergyPublic intellectualInternet seen as a space for amateurs unable to challenge the knowledge and analytical rigour of experts
            2nd: NobilityEconomic elitesCentralization of information utilities and commercialization of Fifth Estate spaces
            3rd: CommonsGovernmentFiltering, regulation and other controls to constrain and block Internet access
            4th: PressMass mediaCo‐opting, imitating and competing with the Fifth Estate space of flows
            MobCitizens, audiences, consumers, spammers, hackersMalicious and accidental uses of the Internet undermine trust and confidence
            Governance of the Fifth Estate Space

            The risks and hazards intrinsic to an open technology like the Internet have led increasingly for calls from citizens, governments, business, industry and others to introduce online gatekeepers and other controls to govern what was originally conceived by the Internet’s designers as an open, end‐to‐end network allowing a free flow of content.56 Questions about the governance of the Fifth Estate are likely to become more prominent as people realize that the Internet is a social phenomenon with broad and substantial societal implications. Appropriately balanced forms of governance of Fifth Estate social and political processes—not just technical Internet and infrastructure aspects—will be required to ensure public debate and accountability are properly supported. This should minimize the risks without damaging the Internet’s openness, which is the foundation of its support for users’ ability to generate57 innovative applications and content.

            Fifth Estate governance includes topics that have become well understood in other Estates, such as freedom of expression, protection of minorities and media ownership and concentration. A right to anonymity is a key issue, since governments and other estates could threaten networked individuals they can identify. At the same time, some service providers and many others are asking for authentication of the identity of users for safety and security purposes.

            The vitality of Internet‐enabled Fifth Estate networks rests less on formulating new policy initiatives than on preventing excessive regulation or inappropriate regulation of the Internet. An intriguing avenue to explore could be to hold Internet users more accountable through the development of innovative approaches to encourage more Fifth Estate self‐regulation, such as by what has been called the ‘peer production of Internet governance’.58 These are typified by self‐governing processes developed for successful novel online applications, such as Wikipedia and the eBay online auction service, where users participate in establishing and monitoring governance rules. These could stimulate ideas for approaches to governance of the space of flows in ways that protect and enhance its vitality to ensure that—using Burke’s observation on the Fourth Estate—the Fifth Estate continues to be not ‘wishful thinking, but a literal fact’.



            1. Based on papers prepared for a lecture at the Examination Schools, University of Oxford, 15 October 2007 (W. H. Dutton, W. H., ‘Through the network of networks—The Fifth Estate’, 15 October 2007. Available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1134502) and a presentation to the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, Internet Research 9.0: Rethinking Community, Rethinking Place, IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark, 15–18 October 2008. My thanks to Malcolm Peltu for his comments on this article.

            2. An account of the estates of pre‐revolutionary France is provided in M. P. Fitzsimmons, The Night the Old Regime Ended: August 4, 1789 and the French Revolution, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 2003.

            3. T. Carlyle, On Heroes: Hero Worship and the Heroic in History, H. R. Allenson, London, 1905, pp. 349–50.

            4. This notion of networked individuals corresponds to the term ‘networked individualism’ that is used to break old dichotomies between the individual and place‐based communities (see B. Wellman, ‘Physical place and cyberplace: the rise of personalized networking’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 25, 2, June 2001, pp. 227–52).

            5. The concept of a ‘network of networks’ was coined in the early years of the Internet, when it was founded as the US Department of Defense’s ARPANET (see P. Craven and B. Wellman, ‘The network city’, Sociological Inquiry, 43, 1, 1973, pp. 57–88).

            6. M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1996.

            7. G. Hamel, The Future of Management, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007.

            8. E. M. Rogers, Communication Technology: The New Media in Society, The Free Press, New York, 1986.

            9. For example, a blogger calls his blog The Fifth Estate (http://at5thestate.blogspot.com/).

            10. See, for example, S. Wyatt, G. Thomas and T. Terranova, ‘They came, they surfed, they went back to the beach: conceptualising use and non‐use of the Internet’, in S. Woolgar (ed.), Virtual Society? Technology, Cyberpole, Reality, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, pp. 23–40.

            11. See, for example, B. Gates, The Road Ahead, Viking, London, 1995.

            12. I. de Sola Pool, Technologies of Freedom, Harvard Press, Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA, 1983.

            13. See, for example, D. Schiller, Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999.

            14. See, for example, Surveillance Studies Network, A Report on the Surveillance Society for the Information Commissioner, Office of the Information Commissioner, Wilmslow, UK, September 2006.

            15. W. H. Dutton, Society on the Line: Information Politics in the Digital Age, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.

            16. Ibid; and W. H. Dutton, ‘Driving into the future of communications? Check the rear view mirror’, in S. J. Emmott with D. Travis (eds), Information Superhighways: Multimedia Users and Futures, Academic Press, New York, 1995, pp. 79–102.

            17. N. Negroponte, Being Digital, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1995; C. R. Sunstein, Republic.com 2.0, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2007.

            18. N. Garnham, ‘Information politics: the study of communicative power’, in Dutton, 1999, op. cit., pp. 77–8; W. H. Dutton and M. Peltu, ‘Reconfiguring government–public engagements: enhancing the communicative power of citizens’, OII Forum Discussion Paper No. 9, Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford, 2007. Available at: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/publications.cfm.

            19. W. H. Dutton, ‘The Internet and social transformation’, in W. H. Dutton, B. Kahin, R. O’Callaghan and A. W. Wyckoff (eds), Transforming Enterprise: The Economic and Social Implications of Information Technology, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005, pp. 375–98.

            20. The term ‘game’ is not used here in a strict game‐theoretic sense, but more generally to indicate an arena of competition and cooperation structured by a set of rules and assumptions about how to act to achieve a set of objectives (see Dutton, 1999, op. cit., pp. 14–6).

            21. J. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1991.

            22. J. Cahir, The Information Commons, Queen Mary Intellectual Property Working Paper, Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute, University of London, 23 July 2003. Available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=428584.

            23. J. Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Allen Lane, London, 2008.

            24. T. Berners‐Lee, W. Hall, J. A. Hendler, K. O’Hara, N. Shadbolt and D. J. Weitzner, ‘A framework for web science’, Foundations and Trends in Web Science, 1, 1, 2006, pp. 1–134. Available at: http://www.nowpublishers.com/product.aspx?product=WEB&doi=1800000001.

            26. See http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/microsites/oxis/; and W. H. Dutton and E. J. Helsper, The Internet in Britain: 2007, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, 2007, available at: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/microsites/oxis/publications.cfm, from which UK statistics in this paper have been taken.

            27. R. E. Rice, A. Shepherd, W. H. Dutton and J. E. Katz, ‘Social interaction and the Internet: a comparative analysis of surveys in the US and Britain’, in A. N. Joinson, K. Y. A. McKenna, T. Postmes and U.‐D. Reips (eds), Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007.

            28. W. H. Dutton, A. Shepherd and C. di Gennaro, ‘Digital divides and choices reconfiguring access. National and cross‐national patterns of Internet diffusion and use’, in B. Anderson, M. Brynin, J. Gershuny and Y. Raban (eds), Information and Communication Technologies in Society. E‐Living in a Digital Europe, Routledge, London, 2007, pp. 31–45.

            29. Broadband access had become the norm for Internet access in many countries. For example, by 2007, 85% of Internet households in the UK accessed the Internet through broadband connections, which is over half of all households (Dutton and Helsper, op. cit., p. 10).

            30. Castells, op. cit.

            31. Dutton and Helsper, op. cit.; W. H. Dutton and A. Shepherd, ‘Trust in the Internet as an experience technology’, Information, Communication and Society, 9, 4, 2006, pp. 433–51.

            32. Dutton and Shepherd, op. cit.

            33. See, for example, P. Dunleavy, H. Margetts, S. Bastow and J. Tinkler, Digital Era Governance, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.

            34. See: the Breaking the Barriers to eGovernment project led by the Oxford Internet Institute (http://www.egovbarriers.org); C. C. Hood and H. Z. Margetts, The Tools of Government in the Digital Age, Palgrave, London, 2006; European Commission, i2010 eGovernment Action Plan: Accelerating eGovernment in Europe for the Benefit of All, European Commission, 2006, available at: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=COM:2006:0173:FIN:EN:PDF.

            35. Dutton and Helsper, op. cit., p. 73.

            36. S. Coleman and D. F. Norris, ‘A new agenda for e‐democracy’, OII Forum Discussion Paper No. 4, Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford, 2005. Available at: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/publications.cfm.

            37. K. Laudon, Communication Technology and Democratic Participation, Praeger, New York, 1977.

            39. T. Blair, ‘The e‐petition shows that my Government is listening’, Observer, 18 February 2007. Available at: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/politics/story/0,,2015871,00.html.

            40. In the Democratic primaries for the US presidential election in 2008, for instance, Barack Obama raised more money, more quickly than anyone had done before—mainly by Internet‐enabled networking among a large number of supporters, each contributing relatively small amounts. This is highlighted by the comment: ‘To understand how Obama’s war chest has grown so rapidly, it helps to think of his website as an extension of the social‐network boom’, made in J. Green, ‘How Silicon Valley made Barack Obama this year’s hottest start‐up’, Atlantic Monthly, 301, 5, June 2008. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/obama-finance.

            41. For example, the Drudge Report (http://www.drudgereport.com) and Guido Fawkes (http://www.order-order.com).

            42. See, for example, A. Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, Doubleday, New York, 2007.

            43. See, for example, Sunstein, op. cit.

            45. See ‘The Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt’, available at: http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/.

            46. W. H. Dutton, ‘The wisdom of collaborative network organizations: capturing the value of networked individuals’, Prometheus, 26, 3, September 2008, pp. 211–30.

            47. S. Weber, The Success of Open Source, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004.

            48. J. Giles, ‘Internet encyclopedias go head to head’, Nature, 438, 2005, pp. 900–1. Available at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html.

            49. For example, a Swarm of Angels is an internal open content film production collaboration (http://aswarmofangels.com), and the Sermo service enables licensed physicians in the USA to ask questions of one another, post replies, and answer and create surveys (http://www.sermo.com).

            50. See, for example, Hamel, op. cit.

            51. The Access Grid is one major initiative (http://www.accessgrid.org).

            52. See, for example, S. Wuchy, B. F. Jones and B. Uzzi, ‘The increasing dominance of teams in production of knowledge’, Science, 316, 18 May 2007, pp. 1036–9.

            53. Keen, op. cit.

            54. N. Carr, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2008.

            55. See, for example, R. J. Deibert, J. G. Palfrey, R. Rohozinski and J. Zittrain (eds), Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Internet Filtering, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008; J. L. Zittrain and J. G. Palfrey, ‘Access denied: the practice and policy of global Internet filtering’, OII Research Report No. 14, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, available at: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/publications.cfm; and the OpenNet Initiative (http://opennet.net), which identifies and documents Internet filtering and surveillance.

            56. W. H. Dutton and M. Peltu, ‘The emerging Internet governance mosaic: connecting the pieces’, Information Polity, 12, 2007, pp. 63–81.

            57. Zittrain, op. cit.

            58. D. R. Johnson, Susan P. Crawford and J. G. Palfrey, ‘The accountable net: peer production of Internet Governance’, Virginia Journal of Law and Technology, 9, 9, 2004. Available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=529022.

            Author and article information

            Critical Studies in Innovation
            Pluto Journals
            March 2009
            : 27
            : 1
            : 1-15
            365915 Prometheus, Vol. 27, No. 1, March 2009, pp. 1-15
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