The Birth of the 'Fifth Estate' William Dutton on 20 Years of the World Wide Web

In a SPIEGEL interview, William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute discusses how fundamentally the World Wide Web has changed our lives since its creation 20 years ago, offering his views on how it helps communities organize and its emergence as a 'Fifth Estate,' helping hold both governments and media around the globe accountable.
A screen shot of the NeXT computer used by Tim Berners-Lee to browse the World Wide Web at the time became publicly accessible on Aug. 6, 1991.

A screen shot of the NeXT computer used by Tim Berners-Lee to browse the World Wide Web at the time became publicly accessible on Aug. 6, 1991.

Foto: CERN

SPIEGEL: Professor Dutton, do you happen to remember what you were doing on Aug. 6, 1991?

Dutton: I have no idea. It's very interesting that the invention of the World Wide Web was not an earth-shaking event. It was definitely not like the Kennedy assassination.

SPIEGEL: On that Aug. 6, Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, made his invention accessible to the Internet community. He did so in a discussion forum called alt.hypertext ...

Dutton: ... and probably not even Berners-Lee himself anticipated the viral spread of the standards he created.

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: The Birth of the World Wide Web

Foto: CERN

SPIEGEL: The forum still exists today, 20 years later. Now it's a barren, spooky place that advertises cheap sunglasses and a "hot, crazy wife." Is this a sign of the times?

Dutton: On the Internet, people are always moving to the next cool site. And it's still very hard to predict where the public will go.

SPIEGEL: When did it become clear to you that something really big was about to emerge?

Dutton: Well, first it didn't look like that at all. I had already been writing e-mails since the mid-1970s, using the precursor to the Internet, the Arpanet. But for many years to come, the Internet was a tool only for computer scientists and academics -- even in 1991, it was frustratingly difficult to convince other people of its benefits. The Internet was complicated to use and visually unappealing. People thought the Web was something like CB radio. Local "bulletin boards" were much more popular back then, because they already had colorful, more graphical user interfaces. The breakthrough came with the first graphic Web browsers, Mosaic and later Netscape. At that time, I realized that this was going to be a mass medium. All of a sudden, everybody around me was learning HTML and creating their own websites.

SPIEGEL: In retrospect, do you think that the Web has lived up to its promise?

Dutton: It has exceeded what anybody could have imagined. Today over a third of the population in Great Britain regard the Internet as essential to their information needs in everyday life and work, more essential than the press or television.

SPIEGEL: The Oxford Internet Institute, which you run, investigates the Internet's influence on society, politics and everyday life -- often with astonishing results, for example on the field of online dating.

Dutton: Yes. We've studied how many couples have met on the Internet, particularly since 2000 and social networking. The percentage is rising, and it's the highest in Germany, where almost one in three couples with Internet access who met since 2000, met online -- in a social network, a chat room or with the help of an online agency.

SPIEGEL: That's surprising indeed ...

Dutton: ... particularly given that the Internet was usually seen as a place where only computer geeks would look for relationships -- not to mention all this panic around dangerous people lurking there. But in the meantime, the Net has apparently been accepted as a new venue to look for somebody you may not otherwise meet. It's a matter of people trying things out before becoming convinced. That's why I call the Internet an "experience" technology.

SPIEGEL: Does the large supply also affect people's choice of partners?

Dutton: Yes, couples that met each other online are more diverse -- such as with greater differences in age and education than couples who met offline. And it's people from the working class who are more interested in looking for relationships online than people with high socioeconomic status. They often want to expand their horizon, to get out of their neighborhood, their workplace.

SPIEGEL: If couples are becoming more diverse, what do they have in common?

Dutton: The Internet is good at linking people with similar interests. Many dating services promise to match couples according to interests, others by personalities. There is even a dating site for the Gothic scene.

SPIEGEL: So the online youth are now learning how to flirt in front of a computer screen?

Dutton: No. Young people are not consciously interested in finding partners through the Internet. Most still have their social networks in real life. It's more the people over forty, with one or two marriages behind them. If I encourage my two daughters to try an online dating site, they think it's ridiculous.

SPIEGEL: The supply of potential partners is practically endless. Doesn't that make people more picky?

Dutton: I think so. We have evidence of that. But the agencies do a good job to keep it manageable. For example, some offer you three good matches first. This role of a third party could become more common in a variety of areas where people are overwhelmed by too much choice and distrust -- shopping, for example. However, the Internet is good at cutting through that information deluge -- by search engines, by focusing people on the top-rated sites, or the sites your friends recommend.

SPIEGEL: Are relationships now constantly under threat because there could always be a better match waiting for you online?

Dutton: Yes, they are. There are some famous cases of women who met their partner online getting a divorce after having caught their spouse flirting with some other woman online. That happens in real life as well. But on the Internet what's going on is so transparent that it tends to get exaggerated -- just like the dangers of Internet addiction or gambling online. It's this kind of moral panic that I'm quite worried about.

SPIEGEL: Now you're exaggerating.

Dutton: I'm not. When it comes to the risks of the Internet, our society shows a tendency toward a disproportionate reaction. Just think of the concerns about children online. In fact the Internet is a great technology for informal learning, for anything a child might be interested in. From time to time, perhaps once a year, there is a story about somebody getting abducted or whatever, which is obviously terrible. People often say the Web is like a swimming pool - where we need strict guidelines and safety mechanisms. But swimming pools are far more dangerous than the Internet. Panic doesn't solve the problem and often leads to poor remedies.

'Internet Played an Important Role in the Arab Spring'

SPIEGEL: The Internet doesn't just arouse fears; it also sparks enthusiasm -- especially regarding its political potential in authoritarian regimes.

Dutton: The Internet undoubtedly played an important role in the Arab spring. An Egyptian Google employee simply set up a Facebook page he administered that brought together people who were concerned about the country's political leadership. That's typical: An individual, almost offhandedly, uses an infrastructure that's available to almost anybody. It's just as easy with Twitter. Now many regimes feel threatened, of course, and they are searching for kill-switches to shut this down.

SPIEGEL: Critics say the Twitter-supported rebellion was just a flash in the pan for the media. The real resistance, they argue, is not being waged by people sitting at computers or typing messages into mobile phones.

Dutton: At least people can find out online that there are others who see things in a similar way. And the mass media, which disseminate all those Twitter feeds, can help take the case one step further. Of course, there are also things the Internet doesn't do well, such as sustaining a political movement over an extended period of time.

SPIEGEL: So it's more of a medium to get things going?

Dutton: Yes. We can see that, for example, in the scandal over Rupert Murdoch's News of the World -- which is absolutely stunning stuff. There had been rumors for years over people hacking into private voicemail, but no one had seriously examined the issue. The media had become too entangled with politicians. Then there was a report that something like that had been done with Milly Dowler, the kidnapped schoolgirl who was later found murdered. And do you know what turned that case, almost overnight, into one of the biggest political issues in Great Britain? It was Mumsnet.com, a network that was originally designed to support parents with their everyday life. All of a sudden, many parents expressed outrage on the site, and the audience became so incensed, that they spontaneously launched a campaign, basically saying: This is enough.

SPIEGEL: This portal was really crucial for the scandal to gain traction?

Dutton: I think so. This shows very nicely that the infrastructure by which people can organize already exists. It may have been set up for something completely different -- for child-rearing purposes, for entertainment, for chatting with friends -- but that doesn't matter. Any infrastructure can be repurposed at a moment's notice. Even football clubs and rugby teams are organized online today. The neighborhood where I live has its own blog, a website and an e-mail list. Just about everywhere, there are potentially political groups, as soon as something happens that gets people upset. What is emerging here is what I call the "Fifth Estate". Networked individuals can hold the established estates -- the government, but also the media -- accountable at any time. In this sense, the Internet makes society more pluralistic, more democratic.

SPIEGEL: By feeding short-lived, impulsive protest movements?

Dutton: Just look at another example, the civil society website MoveOn.org in the United States, launched by two people. At first it was merely a smart mob that opposed the impending impeachment of then President Bill Clinton. But over the years, it turned into a sort of umbrella organization for all sorts of progressive initiatives.

SPIEGEL: It used to be said that the Internet enables a new form of democracy, with the citizens directly involved in political decision-making. Is that realistic?

Dutton: On the local level, yes, especially if people become upset about something. Here in Great Britain, there was a move to cut back local funding, with public libraries being one of the casualties. This prompted groups of supporters to gather around local libraries, and they linked with other groups over the Internet. The "Save Our Libraries" movement was fairly successful. But in general, the Internet as a medium of direct democracy is of limited use. I believe we have to get away from utopian views of people governing themselves from their couches. The Internet won't create a plebiscitary democracy, because most people are not that interested in politics.

SPIEGEL: And yet the Internet, in your view, does change democracy?

Dutton: Of course, because networked individuals are becoming an independent source of social and political accountability -- a Fifth Estate. For example, it can influence the agenda. Every prime minister, every city council knows that people will comment online on what he says and does. The crowd has become an independent power, even independent from the press. It has thousands of eyes, and it can quickly organize around issues, within days or hours, if necessary. This doesn't require constant attention.

SPIEGEL: But the most popular form of expressing an opinion on the Internet is to click the "Like" button on Facebook. Isn't that a rather shallow way of political participation?

Dutton: It just happens to be an advantage of the networked organization that the cost of participation is very low. Pressing a button is not a big activity, but when thousands or even millions of people click ...

SPIEGEL: ... then millions have just done something that costs them nothing. Doesn't it ultimately lead to disappointment when people figure out that politics cannot be remotely controlled with a mouse?

Dutton: By that logic, no one would vote, because voting is totally irrational. The likelihood that I make a difference with my vote is almost zero. People vote because it's a citizen's duty, a very important democratic act. And likewise, voting is pretty easy. Many online activities are more meaningful and potentially more effective.

SPIEGEL: A very tedious problem with politics on the Internet is the quality of the debate. Things become chaotic when too many participants join the conversation. Do you have any idea how this could be improved?

Dutton: It's true, there are people who say stupid things, and small groups can dominate the debate, just as in real life. That's normal. The Internet is hardly suitable for obtaining the public's opinion on important issues, it simply isn't a medium for government consultation. But it is ideal for people to quickly organize as soon as they are upset or concerned about something.

SPIEGEL: But many debates also suffer from the fact that anonymous participants can be offensive without having to fear any consequences. Wouldn't it be better if everyone had to reveal his true identity?

Dutton: You would think so, but it doesn't really help that much. In a study investigating a local electronic city hall we found that people who were required to state their full names didn't behave all that differently. They too became carried away and resorted to flaming and insults. Requiring people to use their real names doesn't moderate their behavior as much as you would expect.

'Silicon Valley Could Lose Its Dominant Position'

SPIEGEL: There is a debate underway on the Internet over whether users should truly have the right to anonymity . People who sign up for Google+, for example, have to provide their real names. Politicians are already calling for a general ban on pseudonyms.

Dutton: That would be disastrous. The right to anonymity is vital to free expression on the Internet. Otherwise people would always have to fear retribution. Anything they say could come back to haunt them one day; the Internet simply doesn't forget. Imagine someone who seeks advice in an AIDS forum. His real name isn't anyone's business, certainly not his employer's 10 years down the road.

SPIEGEL: So we just have to live with the fact that criminals and demagogues enjoy the protection of anonymity as well?

Dutton: It makes sense to talk about separate layers of determining someone's identity. Of course I have to identify myself for online banking. And in a social network I should be able to depend on the fact that someone who claims to be my old school friend is in fact just that. But I need to have the choice of anonymity when I engage in a political discussion, or when I want to point out abuses. There's a wonderful example of this, an Indian website called ipaidabribe.com ...

SPIEGEL: ... an anti-corruption site.

Dutton: Exactly. Governments there had failed to give priority to dealing with corruption for many years. And then, some websites appeared where anyone who had to pay a bribe could post his story. Both payers and recipients of bribes are not identified, which lowers the threshold. And soon there were so many reports that the government had to respond. By aggregating the posts, it could determine where the biggest problems were located. By the way, I did a radio interview in Great Britain on this subject, when it was still new. And when I traveled to China a week later, I discovered seven similar websites that had just been launched across the country that same week.

SPIEGEL: Apparently you had brought along the virus.

Dutton: Perhaps. A Chinese student told me that the government is already trying to block these bribery websites, but they reappeared.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that censorship there could keep the Internet under control in the long term?

Dutton: The Fifth Estate is certainly fragile, it can be undermined by governments. On the other hand, the Internet arouses expectations towards an open society, especially in countries like China. We did an international comparison of how important certain values like freedom of expression, privacy and trust are to Internet users. Surprisingly, free speech is significantly more important to Internet users in China and India than to users in the West.

SPIEGEL: The Chinese and the Indians also seem to contribute much more to the online world.

Dutton: Yes, they upload more photos and videos, they write more posts, including comments on newspaper articles, and they respond more eagerly to surveys. They are ahead of us with respect to everything that falls under the term "Web 2.0," and China sticks out the most. This may partly be due to the fact that the state-controlled media there have less to offer. In China, the Internet is also much more important as a platform of entertainment. But as I said, every infrastructure on the Internet can also be used for political purposes at any time ...

SPIEGEL: ... thereby challenging the balance of power?

Dutton: Technology is not neutral. Even such a simple device as an answering machine once shifted the balance of power. Now the person receiving a call can determine when a conversation takes place -- or if it takes place at all.

SPIEGEL: You say that the emerging countries are becoming dominant on the Internet. Does this affect the further evolution of the Web?

Dutton: Of course. People in these countries are not just the most innovative Internet users, they also have significantly more liberal views. And to the extent that their share is growing, the center of gravity of the Internet is shifting away from North America and Europe. Some 44 percent of Internet users already live in Asia today.

SPIEGEL: So the most exciting Internet products will be coming from China and Indian in 10 years?

Dutton: That's foreseeable. Silicon Valley could certainly lose its dominant position. On the other hand, we have never known what the next big thing might be and where it might come from. This will probably hold true for the next 20 years.

SPIEGEL: Professor Dutton, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Manfred Dworschak
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