Mark Zuckerberg, in his speech last week at Georgetown University, called social media “the Fifth Estate.”
The first three “estates” of society, classically, are the clergy, the nobility, and everyone else.
When the printing press arrived during the Renaissance/Enlightenment period and a mainstream press emerged, a fourth voice, The Fourth Estate, arrived on the scene and the mainstream press has had a long, strong, and lasting effect on society.
As far back as the counterculture years of the 60s, the term Fifth Estate emerged to describe underground newspapers. But it was the web, first with online communities, then blogging, and finally social media, that gave a voice to everyone.
And that is why Zuckerberg called social media “the Fifth Estate.”
As someone who has been blogging for most of the last two decades and who has enjoyed a voice that has been amplified by technology, I very much believe in the power of this Fifth Estate. I think it will have as strong and lasting effect on society as the Fourth Estate has had and will continue to have.
I also understand that the platforms that currently host the Fifth Estate have a tremendous amount of power to shape it, regulate it, and constrain it.
The reason this blog runs on open source software (WordPress) and is hosted on a server that I control is that I don’t want my voice hostage to one of these tech platforms.
I do use Twitter regularly and in doing so, I participate in a constrained platform. I don’t use Facebook regularly, partially because I don’t want to be exposed to or constrained by that platform.
But this post is not about Facebook vs Twitter. They are more similar than they are different. They are large and powerful tech platforms where the Fifth Estate materializes in our society.
They are not the only platforms that host the Fifth Estate. There are so many that matter. There is Reddit and the many other message boards like it. There are blogging platforms like Medium. And there are communities that exist to serve particular interests, including ones that cater to hateful and awful people.
The question that Zuckerberg posed for society last week is what power do we want to convey in these tech platforms to shape and constrain the Fifth Estate.
My vote is very little, if any.
I believe that the power that Facebook and Twitter and other platforms wield on society by virtue of their dominance is a fleeting power and that in time they will be replaced by something else that is better for society.
For now they have a lot of power and that is causing a lot of hand wringing in the halls of Washington and elsewhere.
But we should be careful not to hand them more power. Or worse require them to censor some voices and not others.
This tweetstorm by my friend Balaji says it very well.
Particularly this one:
If a plebiscite was held, few people would want to give up their own right to voice on social media.— Balaji S. Srinivasan (@balajis) October 19, 2019
They may want to silence someone else, but they would not want to give up their own right.
Nor should it be taken away without good reason and due process.