The Fifth Estate - The Power of the Networked Many


A re:publica event

The mainstream media are regarded as the fourth estate. In the digital age, however, a fifth estate has emerged that has existed for some time, but has not yet been comprehensively described. It consists of the networked many that have long since become a media power. They change the agenda and the tempo of traditional journalism; publish on blogs, wikis, and social networks; serve as media critics and a source of corrective opinion; create protest communities; drive exposures or investigative work when necessary; topple politicians; bring companies to their knees; and constitute intelligent critical publics. And occasionally they congregate to engage in cruel online bullying. Agenda-setting from below, media criticism, investigative work and exposures, and brutal attacks – all of these are activities of and roles played by the fifth estate.
Is this good or bad? The answer is: It depends, because the fifth estate has infinite faces, and a dazzling individuality. It is ugly, clever, sensitive, and fanatical. With many current, amusing, and at times frightening examples, this session demonstrates that neither blanket euphoria (“swarm intelligence”) nor the traditional media’s similar wholesale bashing of the online public (“trolls”, “harassment”, “digital mob”) is warranted.
Under the new communications conditions, everything is visible – the small-minded attack, but also the great investigative revelation, the touching dedication, and the conspiracy-theory insanities. And yet the question remains: how can a fifth estate that lacks institutional affiliation civilise itself, so to speak? How can the development of parallel ideological realities that could become dangerous to an open society be prevented? And how can the agenda of universality as a fixed point of public debate be preserved in a time of radically individualised niche audiences?


Bernhard Pörksen, Professor of Media Studies, University of Tübingen