The Fifth Estate — Through the Network (of Networks)

I gave my inaugural lecture, entitled ‘Through the Network (of Networks) — the Fifth Estate’, at the Examination Schools on 15 October 2007. Oxford posted an overview of this lecture at:

Click here for the text on which the lecture was given.

As is the tradition, I did not field questions. Therefore, I would be delighted to field your questions or you may post your comments on this blog.

More recently, I have posted the lecture as a working paper on SSRN. See:

Dutton, William H., “Through the Network of Networks – The Fifth Estate” (October 15, 2007). Available at SSRN:

24 thoughts on “The Fifth Estate — Through the Network (of Networks)

  1. A Fifth Estate: internet evolution via grassroots journalism, freedom of expression and information

    Dear Bill,
    As you know besides cherrypicking through blogs, A Fifth Estate includes many other subsets of grassroots journalism and experimental systems. These are taking hold in the business and academia worlds. Results of A Fifth Estate are creating new opportunities in IT help desks, scientific research, job connections, niche products, at online universities, in college classrooms….

    Crowdsourcing is “the act of taking tasks traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing them to a group of people or community, through an “open call” to a large group of people (a crowd) asking for contributions.” (Wiki)

    This internet enabled, compound of crowd and outsourcing is growing in human resources and corporate learning. In retail establishments, Affinity Groups are being used to crowdsource new products and services. (see “Best Buy Tests New Appeals to Women” Wall St Journal 6/16/2010).

    In 1997 at Oxford’s Centre for Values in Business and Education, I presented on Electronic-Boardroom TMVi(r) Solutions along with the first graduate from an MBA online university. Today’s classrooms have a lot more controversial tools. See ( ). In the past decade, the internet has enabled creativity, voice and transparency. The crux of A Fifth Estate is freedom of expression and freedom of information which enables democracy and participation. OII’s research for UNESCO is groundbreaking. A Fifth Estate is a challenge in governance and accountability for the next decade.

    Suggestion: Please link this Fifth Estate Blog to the Fifth Estate Website.

    June Klein, CEO Technology & Marketing Ventures, Inc.

    • Dear June, Thank you for your comments, and indeed, we should link this to our Web site. All of your suggestions are much appreciated. The UNESCO report is about ready to go online. Bill

  2. Bill,

    Thanks for posting the article and hosting this blog. I personally believe that this Fifth Estate will reshape the way individuals and organizations work together to solve problems and that this will ultimately reshape the way we think of communiies and government. As your research shows there are still small numbers of people moving in this direction, but through the sharing of information, groups of purpose will grow.

    I’m in the senior citizen category so may be an anomality because of the way I’m using the Internet. I believe in many to one, and practice this in the way I host information on that people from throughout Chicago and the rest of the world can draw from to make decisions about where and how they get involved with youth in poverty.

    My network extends around the world, as this post on your blog demonstrates. I’ve connected with people at Oxford via the forum hosted by the Skoll Foundation. My goal is to connect students, faculty and alumni from various universities with each other, and with myself, in a decentralized network of leaders who share information and work toward a common goal.

    If you search “tutor mentor” on Google, my sites come up in the top five, which is a result of applying this strategy for the past 10 years. It’s also part of the effort to constantly share what we know with others, while enabling many more who are concerned about the same issues to find us, e.g. many to one.

    I hope that in future updates on the fifth estate you’ll point to research, and web hubs, where models like what I’m trying to do are posted. Thus, the network of networks in the 5th Estate will be connected to each other in ways that accellerate our growth and encourage others to either join us, or duplicate us.

    I look forward to connecting with you and others in your network.

    Dan Bassill
    Tutor/Mentor Connection

  3. A strong feature of the 4th estate was and is control in the hands of a few. I feel the strong feature of the 5th estate is not to eschew the 4th, nor to in some way be organised or controlling but instead to be a powerful counterbalance. Much as I feel little personal association with the sense of nationhood, I cannot foresee the day when collectively we do not have a need for the reassuring sense of nationhood. For nationhood to exist it needs its own controlling mechanisms, such as government. To visualise the 5th estate as somehow usurping the 4th into obsolescence is fundamentally wrong. I see the 5th is as an information source, a debating forum (often chaotic and anarchic) which is brought together as a corrector when the 4th estate is in the wrong…

    One theme from the talk was the comparison of well researched and thought through information patterns of the 4th, compared with the unresearched and unbalanced nature of the 5th. For example one person with “an agenda” could write a powerful blog that can help to bring down an organisation. Before the 5th, the only effective answer for the common man was in a court of law and a large bank balance. Now the myriad of technologies and services of the 5th estate enable any common man to speak and be heard, and heard effectively. Perhaps every corner of the Internet in fact a Hyde Park speaker’s corner? “Well researched” and “thought through” all take time and money and often where money speaks there exists some 4th estate agenda.

    Just the other day a topic on the radio was whether the Sun newspaper might drop its support for the Labour party at the next election. When Margaret Thatcher won her victory, backed by the Sun the Internet was but a dream. Now it is a reality and I feel reassured that the UK / British / English nation (whatever that is) is not quite so dominated to the same extent by a newspaper editor.

    Even academic institutions have agendas. They generally do research according to funded directions and to some extent the agenda for debate is controlled by that fund.

  4. I am pasting a comment I received by e-mail, so I will credit this to Anon. It raises good questions:

    “Congratulations on an excellent lecture Bill. Very thoughtful and informative.

    I have been wondering: was the 5th estate a ‘provocative theme’ for the lecture, or are you proposing it as an analytic category for research?

    Isn’t the point of speaking about ‘estates’ really a rhetorical device making a claim about where power resides in society? To what extent does the 5th estate have to have some kind of agency and be analytically distinct from the other estates (if they still exist). It seems to me as I look at newspaper industry figures that the 4th estate is being slowly consumed by your 5th estate.”


    My response: I hope the Fifth Estate is both a provocative theme and a useful analytical construct. I view it as a synsitising concept — a theoretical construct that provides a way of bringing the reader or audience into a pattern of concrete observations at the empirical level. I do not think the various estates are entirely separate and the boundaries are blurred with many cases illustrating boundary spanning examples, such as the e-petitions case being a government site that enables a fifth estate function.

    I wonder if the 4th Estate is being consumed by the 5th or transformed as the Internet in creating more competition among news outlets – local and global competition within the Fourth Estate.

    The issue of agency is important and I need to focus more attention on addressing it. My short answer would be that I do not see that it is necessary for individuals and ‘networked individuals’ that compose the Fifth Estate to see themselves serving this role. In fact, I would expect that the aims and objectives of the various individuals and networks are more concrete — stopping a neighborhood project to supporting a political movement. Let’s discuss this.

  5. Peter,

    I had hoped that if people see the role the Internet plays in establishing a Fifth Estate, that issues of Internet governance would be viewed in a different light. The questions you raise illustrate the importance of seeing the Internet from a different perspective.

    My hypothesis – buried in my talk – is that the legal paradigms of the other estates have enabled the Fifth Estate to emerge in most nations albeit not necessarily by design. The worry is that efforts to govern the Internet in new ways as a response to issues such as spam or cyber bullying and the like could undermine this new basis for social accountability.


  6. Bill:

    So with the emergence of the 4th estate, we saw the development of new legal structures generated in response to its emergence. One can think of copyright, freedom of the press, reporter shield laws, etc.

    Your talk made me wonder if there will be similar legal developments in response to the creation of a 5th estate. And what happens if, for example, the culture of the 5th estate is in conflict with the legal paradigms of the other 4 estates (especially with the 4th estate)?

  7. I am not sure about the etiquette of commenting on another person’s blog, but Seb Schmoller pointed me to a note on the lecture that he had blogged, which led with a ‘political scientists view’. See:—a.html Interestingly, I had not thought of this as a political scientist’s perspective, but I was trained as a political scientist (long ago) and the point is quite well taken.

  8. Thank you for your comments. In choosing the construct ‘The Fifth Estate’, I do commit myself to the its value, in ways analogous to the Fourth Estate. With respect to the press, for example, we might well judge some journalistic coverage to be irresponsible, but still benefit from the existence of the press as a whole, to the degree that it provides a relatively independent check and balance on the authority and influence of the other Estates. From this perspective, a state controlled press would not meet the criterion of independence from government, and would not be viewed as a Fourth Estate. So, yes, even though some activities within the Fifth Estate might be judged as irresponsible, I would still view the existence of another relatively independent basis of influence to be in the public interest.

  9. Dear Dr. Bill,
    Interesting and stimulating paper. Looking forward to red more. As everybody agree, the term ‘Fourth Estate’ connote power, influnce as well as responsibity and internal accounatbility. Eventhough, the ¨fifth Estate’ can have influence and power perhaps it may lack social resposibilty and internal accountabilty. The new network will definitely help to avoid thrid ‘party gatekeeping’ however, in such a situation everybody may be batting for themselves. The new ‘public sphere’ may become a forum for agenda setting by politicians, governments, multinational companies and other organisation. perhaps they may be interested in their on welfare rather that public interest, which is contrary to the objective of the Fourth estate (everybody may not agree). Therefore, how far we can trust the Fifth estate? Can we comprehesively use the term Fifth Estate for all network intiativesas it may lack public interest, self-restraint and internal accountability?

  10. Great to have a comment and feeback from a blogger. I did not intend to emphasize information dissemination as I tried to focus attention on ‘networked individuals’ which I believe is what you are suggesting. In fact, I was disappointed with previous allusions to the 5th Estate because they equated this with blogging, which I find far too limited. I hope you find the full text of the talk more balanced, if you have time to read it.

    Thanks again for this comment, and your views on the issue.


  11. Bill,

    A stimulating talk and as a person who sometimes blogs around 5 times a day I can only concur that the concept of a 5th Estate is a worthy epithet. While traditional newspapers and media sources may cover subjects intelligently based on detailed research they are only made up of small teams of people and can only touch the surface of what is “out there”.

    Blogs and other social networking sites enable the people at the coal face to tell their story in their words at a time that suits them without fear of a middle-man reinterpretation driven by some 3rd party agenda.

    The Internet is a very personal medium, and for example newspapers avoid that preferring a third person emphasis, with the exception of the letter page. This gives the Internet a power and immediacy that is almost totally lacking in the fourth estate. Even moves in television towards immediacy with such tactics as reality TV only incur embarrassment.

    If I was looking for directions for you to take this subject I would argue the metaphors of Internet 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 are worthy of exploration. Your talk implied the Internet was very much about information dissemination, I feel that we are definitely in an era of collaboration and as such the buzz that people feel when they interact online is another and distinct powerful force for democracy. Here I am not talking about blogs, which are a 1-many tool, but rather forum styled tools, especially around social networking paradigms.

    To underline my thinking about the 5th Estate two (para)phrases come to mind, “it is not who you know, rather who admits to knowing you”, and “the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know.” The first alludes to the power of social networks, and the second alludes to the fact that there is so much knowledge “out there” and the Internet makes both accessible.

Comments are most welcome