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Source: http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/po/news/2007-08/oct/16.shtml

The Fifth Estate – Through the Network of Networks
News
16 October 2007

Professor William Dutton

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.'

A webcast of the lecture will soon be available on
webcast.oii.ox.ac.uk .For more information on the Oxford Internet
Surveys, go to www.oii.ox.ac.uk/microsites/oxis/

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