Understanding Wikimedia, or, the Heavy Metal Umlaut, one decade on

It has been nearly a full decade since Jon Udell’s classic screencast about Wikipedia’s article on the Heavy Metal Umlaut (current textJan. 2005). In this post, written for Paul Jones’ “living and working online” class, I’d like to use the last decade’s changes to the article to illustrate some points about the modern Wikipedia.1

Measuring change

At the end of 2004, the article had been edited 294 times. As we approach the end of 2014, it has now been edited 1,908 times by 1,174 editors.2

This graph shows the number of edits by year – the blue bar is the overall number of edits in each year; the dotted line is the overall length of the article (which has remained roughly constant since a large pruning of band examples in 2007).



The dropoff in edits is not unusual — it reflects both a mature article (there isn’t that much more you can write about metal umlauts!) and an overall slowing in edits in English Wikipedia (from a peak of about 300,000 edits/day in 2007 to about 150,000 edits/day now).3

The overall edit count — 2000 edits, 1000 editors — can be hard to get your head around, especially if you write for a living. Implications include:

  • Style is hard. Getting this many authors on the same page, stylistically, is extremely difficult, and it shows in inconsistencies small and large. If not for the deeply acculturated Encyclopedic Style we all have in our heads, I suspect it would be borderline impossible.
  • Most people are good, most of the time. Something like 3% of edits are “reverted”; i.e., about 97% of edits are positive steps forward in some way, shape, or form, even if imperfect. This is, I think, perhaps the single most amazing fact to come out of the Wikimedia experiment. (We reflect and protect this behavior in one of our guidelines, where we recommend that all editors Assume Good Faith.)

The name change, tools, and norms

In December 2008, the article lost the “heavy” from its name and became, simply, “metal umlaut” (explanation, aka “edit summary“, highlighted in yellow):

Name change

A few take aways:

  • Talk pages: The screencast explained one key tool for understanding a Wikipedia article – the page history. This edit summary makes reference to another key tool – the talk page. Every Wikipedia article has a talk page, where people can discuss the article, propose changes, etc.. In this case, this user discussed the change (in November) and then made the change in December. If you’re reporting on an article for some reason, make sure to dig into the talk page to fully understand what is going on.
  • Sources: The user justifies the name change by reference to sources. You’ll find little reference to them in 2005, but by 2008, finding an old source using a different term is now sufficient rationale to rename the entire page. Relatedly…
  • Footnotes: In 2008, there was talk of sources, but still no footnotes. (Compare the story about Motley Crue in Germany in 2005 and now.) The emphasis on foonotes (and the ubiquitous “citation needed”) was still a growing thing. In fact, when Jon did his screencast in January 2005, the standardized/much-parodied way of saying “citation needed” did not yet exist, and would not until June of that year! (It is now used in a quarter of a million English Wikipedia pages.) Of course, the requirement to add footnotes (and our baroque way of doing so) may also explain some of the decline in editing in the graphs above.

Images, risk aversion, and boldness

Another highly visible change is to the Motörhead art, which was removed in November 2011 and replaced with a Mötley Crüe image in September 2013. The addition and removal present quite a contrast. The removal is explained like this:

remove File:Motorhead.jpg; no fair use rationale provided on the image description page as described at WP:NFCC content criteria 10c

This is clear as mud, combining legal issues (“no fair use rationale”) with Wikipedian jargon (“WP:NFCC content criteria 10c”). To translate it: the editor felt that the “non-free content” rules (abbreviated WP:NFCC) prohibited copyright content unless there was a strong explanation of why the content might be permitted under fair use.

This is both great, and sad: as a lawyer, I’m very happy that the community is pre-emptively trying to Do The Right Thing and take down content that could cause problems in the future. At the same time, it is sad that the editors involved did not try to provide the missing fair use rationale themselves. Worse, a rationale was added to the image shortly thereafter, but the image was never added back to the article.

So where did the new image come from? Simply:

boldly adding image to lead

“boldly” here links to another core guideline: “be bold”. Because we can always undo mistakes, as the original screencast showed about spam, it is best, on balance, to move forward quickly. This is in stark contrast to traditional publishing, which has to live with printed mistakes for a long time and so places heavy emphasis on Getting It Right The First Time.

In brief

There are a few other changes worth pointing out, even in a necessarily brief summary like this one.

  • Wikipedia as a reference: At one point, in discussing whether or not to use the phrase “heavy metal umlaut” instead of “metal umlaut”, an editor makes the point that Google has many search results for “heavy metal umlaut”, and another editor points out that all of those search results refer to Wikipedia. In other words, unlike in 2005, Wikipedia is now so popular, and so widely referenced, that editors must be careful not to (indirectly) be citing Wikipedia itself as the source of a fact. This is a good problem to have—but a challenge for careful authors nevertheless.
  • Bots: Careful readers of the revision history will note edits by “ClueBot NG“. Vandalism of the sort noted by Jon Udell has not gone away, but it now is often removed even faster with the aid of software tools developed by volunteers. This is part of a general trend towards software-assisted editing of the encyclopedia.NoSwagForYou
  • Translations: The left hand side of the article shows that it is in something like 14 languages, including a few that use umlauts unironically. This is not useful for this article, but for more important topics, it is always interesting to compare the perspective of authors in different languages.Languages

Other thoughts?

I look forward to discussing all of these with the class, and to any suggestions from more experienced Wikipedians for other lessons from this article that could be showcased, either in the class or (if I ever get to it) in a one-decade anniversary screencast. :)

  1. I still haven’t found a decent screencasting tool that I like, so I won’t do proper homage to the original—sorry Jon! []
  2. Numbers courtesy X’s edit counter. []
  3. It is important, when looking at Wikipedia statistics, to distinguish between stats about Wikipedia in English, and Wikipedia globally — numbers and trends will differ vastly between the two. []

Wikis and law school

The excellent Eric Goldman had a good post Tuesday about giving students grades for wikipedia content. This reminded me that ages ago I’d written that two of my classes were going to use wikis, but never followed up on it.

picture: UC Berkeley Law School Quote, by ingridtaylar, used under CC-BY

The classes I used wikis for were different than Eric’s- he actually assigned students to create Wikipedia articles, whereas the four classes I ended up taking with wikis all used school-hosted wikis for a wide variety of purposes:

  • Three designated note-takers taking notes into the wiki, allowing the banning of laptops for other students.
  • Note-taking rotating among all students, with wiki gnoming being (if I recall correctly) an ill-defined grade component, but no non-note-taking articles assigned.
  • Creation of articles in a class wiki being the primary grade for the class, and with some interaction with other student’s work expected, but with no significant intent that the articles written would become a permanent resource for the public. Essays were capped at 1,000 words- which drove many students nuts but led to some fine writing.
  • Creation of articles in a class wiki being the primary grade, with the intent that the class website would build up over the course of repeated class offerings to become an authoritative web asset for the scholarly community working in that area.1

(All of these classes except the last were in technology-related courses.)

Despite these widely different set of approaches, several pieces of Eric’s commentary rang very true for me.

First, basic wiki concepts were tough. Partially, this reflects poor technology- the average wiki is needlessly hard to use.2 Eric saw this in his students (“it took students a substantial amount of time to format their entries into Wikipedia’s format”) and I think it was true in my classmates as well.

But it isn’t just about the technology. Eric says “[m]ost students did not intuitively understand how to approach writing an encyclopedic treatment of a topic.” That does not ring perfectly true for me- lots of my classmates read enough of wikipedia that the format was relatively familiar- but it isn’t insane, especially given the very wide variability in the treatment of legal topics in wikipedia. It would almost certainly help to provide a sort of ‘model’ article, much like the model memos used in writing classes. Since most of the cases will be about specific statutes or cases writing two model/template articles should suffice for many classes.

Other wiki concepts, like extensive linking, or publishing drafts to the world in wiki-style, were apparently even more strange to most of my classmates. None of the four class wikis were deeply interlinked or cross-referenced, outside of what was necessary to create a table of contents and occasional outlinks to wikipedia. Similarly, few students were willing to post works-in-progress to the wiki and refine them there- most students preferred to work privately and then put a final text into the wiki. I’m not sure that law school is the right place to teach wiki nature, and indeed Prof. Goldman seems nervous about publishing student work while it is still a work-in-progress3, but still- I was surprised so few of my classmates appeared to be into the wiki way of creating iteratively edited, interlinked content.4

Collaboration was another angle that was difficult. Prof. Goldman says “I gave students the option of working together on a topic, but none ended up pursuing that.” This is not surprising- law schools are essentially designed to teach anti-collaboration- but it is a shame, since collaboration is a (the?) crucial skill in legal practice. Some mandatory wiki collaboration (every student required to substantively edit and fact-check another student’s work, as well as their own writing?) might be a small step in the right direction- and might also help alleviate Eric’s concern about the amount of time he spent editing and fact-checking. As a bonus, the wiki nature of the project should make it easy to grade this student editing- the edits will all be right there5.

All these issues make it hard to write good informative wiki-articles in a class context, but surprisingly, they also made the class-notes-in-wiki strategy fall far short of its potential. I would have thought that the lower barrier to entry (no need for perfection) and the stronger incentive for students to delve into them (so that they’d be prepared for exams) would have encouraged these wikis to become ongoing demonstrations in improvement. But instead people just had other things to do, so they tended to languish, untended, until right before exams. I think some ‘live’ wiki technologies like Wave, Etherpad, etc., will help improve that in the future (by allowing more than one editor while the class is actually happening) but until them I’m afraid wiki class notes might not get very far.

In the one class I had that was truly article-oriented, the professor provided a set of suggested questions to research and address. Prof. Goldman seems to regret not doing this from the start, but unfortunately this seems like an inevitable requirement. At the time you want students to start researching and writing they just can’t know the subject area well enough to know what is ‘missing’ from the wiki, so you almost certainly have to provide pointers for all but the most driven students. Note here that this class was in a purely scholarly area (no one was going to treat our work on English property law of the 1300s as legal advice) so we did not have some of the constraints that he felt he had with regards to making sure it was right before it was published. It would be interesting to delve into this question more- given that articles do not identify their authors as lawyers, and given that people come to wikipedia with an expectation that it is imperfect, I wonder if students can be encouraged to publish more work in earlier forms than they might otherwise.

Prof. Goldman concludes that “[i]t is unrealistic to expect that most law students can produce useful entries without supervision.” I’m not sure I’d be so harsh; I think most of my classmates were capable of doing this if prodded to, and it seems like most of Eric’s were too (after more supervision than he expected, admittedly.) But if he is right, this is a pretty sad statement to make. We’re a profession which is necessarily grounded in our ability to communicate, and we should be a profession grounded in our ability to communicate clearly and concisely to a legally unsophisticated public- that is to say, to our clients. If our students can’t write a simple encyclopedia entry, we’re in trouble.

Despite this pessimism, I think the piece gets the most important part exactly right:

I think a wiki entry might be a useful alternative to the traditional seminar paper. I have never been a huge fan of requiring students to write law review-style seminar paper in a semester-long course. Ultimately I think it’s nearly impossible for a novice to come up with a good topic and write a coherent and well-researched paper in a 4 month semester from a cold start. (I expand on that point a little here). As a result, in practice, many student seminar papers devolve into quasi-encyclopedic treatments of a topic with a paragraph of student commentary tacked onto the end. Instead of going through that charade, the professor could channel the student’s research and writing effort into an expressly encyclopedic treatment. This would reduce the pressure students feel to come up with a novel topic, and it would allow the world at large to benefit from the student’s work rather than the effort going into a desk drawer (or worse, the circular file) at the semester’s end.

In my experience, wiki writing- whether the goal is inclusion in Wikipedia or not- really should be part of the law school curriculum. It is better than traditional papers for teaching basic research and scholarship, and if done well, can also teach collaboration, editing, and other writing skills. There is still a lot to learn about the ‘done well’ part, but I hope Prof. Goldman and others continue to experiment with it. They’re doing the right thing even if their students don’t realize it yet :)

  1. This separate class wiki had a lot of benefits, most notably being that student articles are never targeted for deletion as irrelevant, but obviously the segregation from the main wiki community has drawbacks too. Maybe the equivalent of the class prize for best essay should be that the best article is ‘promoted’ to main wikipedia… []
  2. I think real-time wiki/wysiwyg tools like Wave and Etherpad will help fix this once they mature. []
  3. It might make sense to ‘incubate’ student posts in a separate wiki, so that their classmates can see and participate in each other’s work, before publishing it to Wikipedia. []
  4. Tangentially, focusing on linking may also provide the solution to Prof. Goldman’s problem that the school requires seminar papers to be 20 pages long- one article is unlikely to be of equivalent length, but an interlinked network of articles on related cases, statutes, and topics could easily grow to that size. []
  5. One could imagine giving 40% credit for the article and 10% credit for the quantity and quality of edits made to other students articles, if you had an incubator wiki []

ending the celebration

Law school, even when you’re done with it, has ways of beating you down. In this case, it is the lack of preparation for the bar. In the next two months, I have to learn several topics I hadn’t previously learned, and re-learn several topics about which I know a lot of theory and very little practice. I’ve also got to move at the end of this week, which already puts me behind schedule for the studying. As a result, I’ll probably not be very digitally sociable from now through August.

Two tools that are going to make that a little easier:

  • As usual, leechblock. Truly excellent for defining your workday. (I know I was on semi-vacation the past two weeks because I turned off leechblock.)
  • Anki– libre, multi-platform flashcards to help me memorize all the various stuff that I have to stuff into my head in the next two months. Includes sync and a web-based version so I can work on my phone or across multiple laptops.

The celebration, while it lasted, was pretty nice. Some things that got done this weekend with my parents in town:

  • lots of good food: at Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center; at Blue Hill; at the awesomely yummy yet fairly reasonable Kuma Inn; at the awesomely yummy yet totally cheap Caracas Arepa Bar.
  • music: Dizzy’s had music too- Bill Charlap trio. I think the music critic-approved phrase is ‘spectacular display of piano virtuosity.’ Also saw In The Heights again (first musical I’ve ever seen twice); still spectacular.
  • museums: went to the Museum of Art and Design to see their glass and industrial ceramics exhibitions, and to the Guggenheim to see their Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective. Both highly recommended.
  • walks; the weather has been terrific and we’ve been able to walk quite a bit, including some time in a gorgeous Central Park yesterday.
  • friends: shout out to the close friends who ended up at the impromptu hat party!

So really, I can’t complain too much… now back to the grindstone.

you know law journals may have ruined your mind forever if…

A paper you’re editing has a not-very-useful citation for ‘the internet is faster than snail mail’. Do you:

(1) say ‘really? we need to have a citation for that at all?’ and delete the cite, because, really, ‘the internet is faster than snail mail’ needs citation only slightly more than ‘humans breath air’.

(2) spend hours (well, maybe 30 minutes) trying to find a better cite.

(3) spend hours (well, maybe 30 minutes) trying to find a better cite- while option #1 never even crosses your mind.

If you answer ‘2’, you May Be A Journal Editor. If you answer ‘3’, you are definitely a journal editor. Damn this has messed with my mind..

failures of the legal academy

Because of this blog, I get an email every other month or so asking about law school- should I go? where should I go? etc. My responses are usually, frankly, fairly negative- I’ve had a fairly decent experience, but I think that is in large part for fairly unusual and idiosyncratic reasons. Via madisonian.net I stumbled on one paper and one collection of papers that I’ll now be recommending to anyone who wants to go to law school.

The first is “Legal Education as Training for Hierarchy“by Duncan Kennedy. There are a lot of damning (and quite a few not-quite-as-damning-as-the-author-thinks) bits in the piece, but I think perhaps the most dead on was this one:

The point of the class discussion will be that your initial reaction of outrage is naive, non-legal, irrelevant to what you’re supposed to be learning, and maybe substantively wrong into the bargain. There are “good reasons” for the awful result, when you take a legal and logical “large” view, as opposed to the knee-jerk passionate view; and if you can’t muster those reasons, maybe you aren’t cut out to be a lawyer.

Of course, as the article points out, there are multiple ways you could teach this- you could teach it with context, pointing out that your instincts are valid and giving examples of how justice can still be done within the context of the law; or you could teach it in the most soul-crushing, status-quo-reinforcing manner possible. No cookie for guessing which one happens in law school. Even if not all of the author’s assumptions seem plausible1 he’s dead on about how the law school experience is structured and the pernicious impact it has on how even well-meaning people react to the status quo.

The second set of papers is in the most recent Georgetown Law Journal, centered around a piece called ‘Spam Jurisprudence‘ by Pierre Schlag and a series of responses to it. Again, I recommend them to anyone entering law school. First, because they are not an easy read2, so if you can wrap your head around them you’re probably ready for law school. More importantly, they discuss a serious problem in legal academia- the lack of impact on the real world, and the lack of intellectual challenge involved in most academic legal work. Again, the paper is almost a caricature of the reality – Posner’s response in particular does a good job of pointing out areas where there is real intellectual ferment in today’s legal scholarship – but Schlag does point out some serious structural issues that will frequently cause disappointment if you come in with the idea of challenging current thinking through legal research and writing.

Of course, neither of these articles come with practicable solutions attached, in large part because (as both authors point out) these problems reflect the problems of the profession3, and so can’t be solved in isolation. But interesting to think about anyway.

  1. I do think that there are significant differences between both students and professors, even if our hierarchies brutally overvalue and usually mis-measure those differences []
  2. I’d go so far as to say ‘bizarre’ read, perhaps entertaining if you get the in-jokes []
  3. maybe part of the plan should be fixing the ABA? []

bad/good, paper-writing edition

bad: I’m hating writing this paper, tentatively titled “Access Remedies after Open Standards: Can An “Open” Technology Be Successfully Regulated?”

good: I got to write the following very satisfying footnote: “Indeed, their work is valuable primarily for the thorough and exemplary historical research presented in it; the conclusions drawn about software development processes reflect a remarkable lack of insight about best practices in software development.” I almost turned that footnote into a paper itself, which would have been much easier to write but ultimately much less satisfying.

jury duty through end of January

For those who haven’t heard, I’ve been seated on a criminal jury, in a fairly complex case that may last through the last week of January. On the down side, this is wreaking havoc on the beginning of my semester, but on the plus side I’m fulfilling a civic duty that I do strongly believe everyone should do1, I’m getting a glimpse into a courtroom in a way many lawyers never get (since in most cases lawyers are removed from juries by peremptory challenge), and the way the trial has gone so far I’m going to have some fairly crazy stories to tell once I’m done and can talk about them. So things could be worse. See everyone on the other side…

  1. insert mandatory comments about it being a deeply flawed system but also the one we’ve got here []


If you live in or around New York, and you’re interested in info/tech/’cyber’ law events, you should check out nycinfolaw.org. What was a drunken brainstorm about a year ago has turned into a calendar and mailing list- nothing fancy, but the important bits are there. The primary goal is to take the fractured events all over the city (of which there are many) and get them in one place, so that we can cross-pollinate and increase interest and attendance. I also hope people in the area actually start talking about issues (ala the cyberprofs list, but less exclusive). We’ll see if that happens :) Either way, if you’re in the area and interested in these issues, sign up and hopefully we’ll see you around.