Thursday, 14 July 2011

Cyber Pitchforks and the Rise of the Fifth Estate

In latter half of the 20th century the traditional ‘estates’ (nobility, elected politicians and clergy) were no longer trusted to bring us ‘the truth’. Their ‘truths’ became hollow, undermined by scandal, war driven cynicism and the rise of the ‘fourth estate’ in the form of enormous print and television based media empires.

 But as we reach the second decade of our hyper-connected 21st century world, the fourth estate is now also in crisis. Television faces ever declining numbers and the credibility of print media has been shaken thanks to the unethical behaviour of profit-starved corporations like News International.

And so rises the ‘fifth estate’.  Initially describing the cybercitizens of the blogosphere, the term is now expanding to include the micro-story sharing, opinionated communities of Twitter, Facebook and Google+. And they are not to be underestimated. The fifth estate are not content to be spoon fed reality by those in power, and are instead utilising collaboration and social connection tools to negotiate a reality that is not only more just and transparent, but fundamentally egalitarian. The cyber masses are using social media (usually via mobile devices) to cut through antiquated bureaucracy and moribund structures in order to engage in everything from mass violent protests to disaster relief efforts.

But there is a downside. Emoticons may have replaced pitchforks and torchers, but the mob mentality is still clearly evident.

Almost every week we can witness howling online groups whipping themselves into righteous indignation on the pages of Facebook or the communities of Twitter. CEO’s, presidents, dictators, police commissioners, celebrity adulterers – they have all been brought down by cyber mobs and rapacious bloggers in the last two years. In the meantime mainstream media have become followers not leaders of lid-blowing stories.

Many recent falls from grace (i.e. Murdoch, Mubarak, Gaddafi) are often seen to be morally justified. But this same mentality is also responsible for a rise in suicides and business failures directly related to cyber-bullying and cyber-slander.

Our society is changing very rapidly as the social media and mobile media revolutions gain pace. Every institutional system we currently take for granted – education, police, intelligence and defence, business, government- is struggling to deal with the massive shift in power that is occurring. Nobody is openly talking about it, but a low level of panic is setting in as the degree of change occurring becomes clear and the lack of preparedness of the technophobic Boomer generation is revealed.

I am not saying that the revolution that is occurring is in any way bad, or that it wasn’t inevitable with the exponential shifts in technology we have seen in recent years. But I am nervous that there has been a great deal of transferred over to the fifth estate in the last 3 years, without any associated efforts to build meta-cognitive and emotional competencies.

It used to be that leadership was transferred to individuals after many years of education and apprenticeship. People (men) were brought through the ranks of industry, clergy, nobility and military and were taught the skills needed to hold power responsibly. This process was obviously not always successful, but at least it was in place. Now, power has now shifted from formal individual and small group leadership, to leadership by the amorphous masses. And in our current revolution, there are no checks and balances in place at all.

Is this a good thing? In the next few years, as the estates of traditional power disintegrate completely, we will have to see.

1 comment:

Rimu said...

I think you are over-stating the impact of social media. Dictators have not been bought down by social media, they have been bought down by people taking to the streets, prepared to risk their lives for a better future. Not by a bunch of hipsters playing with their iPhones.