Tech Talk. Online encyclopedia as social Darwinian experiment

Technology Trends & Culture - August 5th, 2005

by Andrew Robinson

One of the greatest things about the internet is some­thing that we often forget: it’s literally the greatest free research tool available to the public. One of the main reasons the world wide web was created was to facili­tate research and to connect people who were conduct­ing it, regardless of their physical location. Recently, I was reminded of these two fundamental aspects of why the web was created by Wikipedia.

A ‘wiki’ is a piece of software built or created collectively by a number of contributors. Wikipedia is a collaborative online encyclopedia, which aims to “create and distribute a free international encyclopedia in as many languages as possible.” Articles submitted are neutral in their point of view and free since they are provided by independent research.

Wikipedia has grown in size and prestige — and received no small amount of criticism as well — since its beginnings in January 2001. It has been cited as a source by the Canadian Parliament and the online journal for the American Association for the Advance­ment of Science as well as criticized for lacking in ‘au­thority’ by The Guardian and by the editors of Encyclo­pedia Britannica.

This difference of opinion about accuracy — and one of the caveats of using Wikipedia as a source of information — is how Wikipedia works: anyone can contribute and comment on any article. This is where the ‘open source’ nature of Wikipedia starts to take ef­fect. Like open source software such as Linux, where the ‘product’ is created and improved on by thousands of contributors, articles submitted to Wikipedia are re­viewed and commented on by thousands of others, a process of checking and modifying for accuracy and neutrality that achieves a kind of authority by consen­sus over a period of time — articles ‘survive’ according to a kind of online social Darwinism.

Because it’s freely available under this open source license, and because it strives to be neutral from bias and any one single point of view, many find it to be an excellent source of information. And because of its widespread, international, and collaborative nature, Wikipedia is constantly being updated and supple­mented and is therefore astonishingly up to date. The English language edition alone (there are 92 language editions, including Japanese) has 626,576 articles as of the time of writing.

So, go to and start looking up all that stuff you want to find out. It’s free, only a click away, and it’s possibly the most interesting research you’ll ever do.

Andrew Robinson has been working in the IT field in Tokyo, in businesses ranging from small to interna­tional enterprises, for over ten years.