- Visitors & Friends
- About the University
The Fifth Estate – through the network of networks
16 Oct 07
The impact of the internet as a new form of social accountability and why it should be defined as ‘the Fifth Estate’ was the subject of an inaugural lecture by William Dutton, the Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford University, on 15 October.
Professor Dutton’s lecture at the Examination Schools was entitled ‘Through the network (of networks)– the Fifth Estate’. He started by reminding his audience that the rise of the press and development of radio, television and other mass media has created an independent institution in many nations that had become known as the ‘Fourth Estate’, which has been central to pluralist democratic processes. Professor Dutton then went on to argue that the growing use of the internet and related information and communication technologies like the personal computer and the world wide web supported greater accountability not only in government and politics, but also in other sectors.
He said while optimists see the internet as tending to democratise access to information and undermine hierarchies, others contend that institutions will use the internet to enhance their control of existing institutional structures and organisational arrangements. But he pointed out that as well as institutions using the internet, it creates ‘platforms for new networks of individuals’ and ‘the basis for the pro-social networks that compose what I am calling the ‘Fifth Estate’. He provided examples: medical professionals who could share information with other professionals and patients anywhere in the world; or local government officials engaging with individuals on community websites – but also well beyond their constituencies.
Professor Dutton said: ‘The ability the internet affords individuals to network within and beyond 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 Estate.’
Professor Dutton is Director of the University’s Oxford Internet Institute, which has been carrying out the Oxford Internet Surveys (OxIS) every two years since 2003 to research the internet’s growing impacts in everyday life. Findings from this research, such as the huge increase in the use of the internet for accessing information between 2005 and 2007 led him to the Fifith Estate as a means of synthesizing people to a wide range of concrete trends, such as the internet becoming the first place people go to find information, both trival and of a serious nature. Professor Dutton argues the internet is being used by existing institutions to try and enhance what they do, but it is also a means of mobilising individuals as well as institutions to create local and global networks that can hold these institutions accountable for their actions.
The internet is a platform for networking individuals in ways that can challenge the influence of other more established bases of institutional authority, Professor Dutton says. For instance, he argues that it can be used to increase the accountability of the press, politicians, doctors and academics, by offering internet users alternative sources of information and opinion.
Professor Dutton believes that the vitality of the Fifth Estate rests less on new policy initiatives than on preventing over-regulation of the internet. The question remains, however, on how this is done. Professor Dutton concluded: ‘Questions about the governance of the Fifth Estate are likely to become more prominent as people realise that the internet is a social phenomenon with broad and substantial implications.’