Jan 6 2008
A manifesto by Geoff Livingston
A great struggle has ensued with the ascent of new media. Audience members have become more than casual viewers of the show. Now they create their own commentary, and in extreme cases, rise above trade media to become just as influential. Content creators have become a force of their own, community members with a voice — not supplanting the media — but augmenting it. They have become the Fifth Estate.
In a comment on this blog, NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen wrote, "…people cannot be considered simply audience members anymore. Some of them are producers as well as consumers, and we need a new name for those people". Photo credit: Audience in Red by Felipe Trucco.
In marketing and PR circles, debates continue as to whether those that partake in social media (both content generators and casual readers) should be considered audiences, communities or just people! Ironically, this debate goes all the way back to the Cluetrain Manifesto and has superseded our own "inside the bubble conversation." Renowned author William Gibson told Wired in July, 2005:
Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical.
Unfortunately, much of the blogosphere dialogue deals with how to approach social media circles from a marketing perspective. This conversation does not address new media’s role and place within a larger integrated media picture. But why the Fifth Estate?
The Fifth Estate
The Fourth Estate – or the media — got its nickname by policing the governments of France and Great Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The French Estates General consisted of The First Estate of three hundred clergy, the Second Estate of three hundred nobles and the Third Estate of six hundred commoners. The media fulfilled a new role, providing their readership with more factual information about political events.
As a result, politicos were forced into a new level of accountability. Media became the fact provider, the great source of information beyond hype. When the politicians stepped out of line, the masses were informed, and protests, and in some cases, revolution ensued.
Since then, the Fourth Estate has grown to include broadcast media forms, too. In modern times, the fourth estate role has extended into all facets of life, from business reporting (for example, the HP Board Scandal) to entertainment (Britney). This painting is "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix.
Yet, the media has its own fallacies. PR execs swarm the traditional media to place stories, corporations and politicians alike employ spinners to ensure favorable coverage, and decreasing budgets have brought newsrooms with less and younger journalists. While still authoritative, the media no longer enjoys complete trust.
The Fifth Estate — citizen media — brings to bear unreported yet relevant news, and questions stated facts. Marshall University Professor Stephen D. Cooper proposed the Fifth Estate concept in his 2006 book, "Watching the Watchdog: Bloggers as the Fifth Estate." Cooper thought the new level of accountability caused by blogs was the emergence of a Fifth Estate in our social system. The blogosphere and, in my opinion, social network users keep the Fourth Estate honest.
Indeed, in some cases the media has welcomed social media, using it to augment its own research. Consider this recent Washington Post story on election coverage:
The popularity of blogs, YouTube and information databases such as LexisNexis, along with the 24-hour news cycle, has made it easier than ever for the media and rival campaigns to spot the mistakes and exaggerations of presidential candidates.
Lest critics point out that this phenomena is isolated to politics, two days later the Post published a similar article on how fan-generated media was driving sports stories. Here’s a snippet:
But in the arena of sports, the arbiter of what matters is increasingly shifting from the mainstream media to the freewheeling realm of the blogosphere, where impassioned fans opine about the playing field’s heroes, villains and controversies of the day.
Like the Fourth Estate, the role of the Fifth Estate has extended beyond politics to larger issues. Consider Charlene Li’s influential role in raising the flag on Beacon. Or how angry iPhone buyers blogged and commented, evoking– a prompt and immediate apology from one of America’s most powerful men, Steve Jobs. The examples continue on and on.
New Media Becomes Part of the Larger Mix
A forthcoming report from Deloitte reveals some very interesting statistical trends:
The Deloitte "State of Media Democracy" report holds the most bullish numbers I’ve seen to date. While they represent a sampling of the population (more than 2,000), the numbers are hard to deny. Other studies confirm the trend. eMarketer offers more conservative, but still very high usage numbers, estimated that 38% of the population uses social network sites regularly. An October Forrester study claimed that 60% of active web users look to blogs and user-generated media as "more trustworthy" than corporate web sites, press releases, etc.
We are at a point where the early adoption phase is over. The numbers are reaching the early majority range, according to Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations theory. There is no bubble to burst. People want conversational outlets as part of their larger media consumption. It’s undeniable that New Media Is Here To Stay. Diffusion bell curve image from K-Zero.
A manifesto by its very nature dictates intent of opinion or policy. This manifesto seeks to move the conversation from the validity of new media to how it fits within the larger spectrum of media forms.
That’s why the term the "Fifth Estate" works for me. By its very nature it empowers the community of people creating content, honoring them as an an estate holder. It moves beyond dialogue about whether people are worthy of having their voices heard or if they should simply be viewed as an audience. Instead, the Fifth Estate represents a place of earned stature.
At the same time, five follows four. My point is simple. It’s inevitable that sooner or later people will want to read news from an authority figure. New media does not have the professional quality that traditional media outlets have.
More often than not, while more personal and colorful in its commentary, user generated media lacks factual research. And some content creators are better than others in their efforts to be relevant. Many could not come close to influential as they are personal in nature, or are mired in rants and incomplete logic. That’s why regardless of how user-generated media evolves, there will always be a prominent role for traditional media.
The Consumer Reports and New York Times of the world seem ideally positioned to serve large communities with their professional, top-quality news reports. Indeed, since opening its online property, the New York Times has seen a dramatic jump in readership (source found though Conversation Agent).
Like all trends, the pendulum often swings one way and then whips back, continuing a see-saw rhythm until the happy median is struck. It’s likely that social media will continue to grow in influence, and that some traditional media outlets will fall to the way-side. Others will change to meet the times, and others will simply be the Economist, and in that sense, maintain their traditional integrity.
Both new and traditional media likely have shakeouts ahead of them. For example, some new media forms that gamble on eyeballs and have yet to (and may never) monetize will collapse. The content generator may simply grow weary.
At the same time, traditional media outlets that do not successfully generate online readership and advertising revenue to augment their dwindling print business will continue to shrink. In some cases like Business 2.0, they will fail.
Those that study media academically, professionally, or from a personal point of interest need to include new media within the larger analysis. How that picture looks is uncertain.
Mass communities like Facebook have already made their presence felt. On an individual basis, with the exception of major blogs like TechCrunch and Huffington Post, most new media outlets will reside in the Long Tail of media forms. Ultimately, analysis will be subject to the general public’s consumption trends. A fitting end to a debate full of pundits fighting over a crystal ball.
The continued interaction between the Fourth and Fifth Estate fascinates me. It’s apparent the two are becoming intrinsically tied. As major stories start generating groundswell in the blogosphere or in social networks, the media reacts. In essence, the community informs the media when a story reaches a level of importance. The Fifth Estate has become the ultimate source.
In a phone discussion with budding author Chris Heuer, it became apparent that one result is a new source for stories. Heuer said, “It’s really great. Because now with social media the media has more source material. Before they pretty much were limited to PR sources, the wires services, and police reports for story generation.”
While bloggers may not be accurate or factual, one could certainly say the same thing about spin issued from PR types. Perhaps the addition of the Fifth Estate creates a more composite picture.
Another aspect of the Fourth and Fifth Estate relationship, as noted by a three part series on journalism versus blogging, some journalists continue to blur the editorial lines and act like bloggers. This destruction of editorial "integrity" makes me cringe. How long can this continue before journalists sacrifice their authoritative position and simply become part of the Fifth Estate?