Walled-Garden Wikis and Candlepower

Fact: Last night the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) announced it has “moved its C2Pedia Registry to the unclassified network enabling more potential users to access and edit the site, hoping it will ultimately improve the quality of data.”  C2Pedia is a MediaWiki-driven online knowledge base of information about Command and Control (C2), with specific information about more than 200 C2 systems used across the Department of Defense and the armed services.

Analysis: The profusion of wikis in official government circles is an interesting expression of the value of social media for enterprise knowledge management, but for the most part inside agency or network firewalls, denying access to the public at large and therefore incorporating only the wisdom of “the inside crowd.” The State Department’s Diplopedia sits on their intranet (ironically called “OpenNet”), as the New York Times pointed out in a story a few weeks ago (“An Internal Wiki that’s Not Classified“), implying a distinction (without a difference to my mind) between Diplopedia and the IC’s Intellipedia, which has an unclassified version as well – but it also sits on a firewalled network!

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, testified to Congress recently about the value of wikis and social media within enterprises, and pointed out the distinction between “within-the-agency” verticalized information sharing, a la Diplopedia, and horizontal sharing across organizations as exemplified by the IC’s Intellipedia, which as I mentioned has a firewalled unclassified version as well as its classified-network versions, all accessible from any of the intelligence community’s sixteen agencies and beyond.

The JFCOM move opens the C2Pedia walled garden, to a level of horizontal openness dwarfing [meant to say] rivaling Intellipedia.  [ed.: That correction suggested by John Hale of IC Enterprise Services, which runs Intellipedia.] 

Now anyone with a DoD Common Access Card can access and edit C2Pedia — and that’s some 3.5 million active-duty personnel, bureaucrats, and contractors, according to DoD.

Sovereign of the Seas (click to enlarge)

HMS Sovereign of the Seas (from the Wikimedia Commons, click to enlarge)

Tangential Analysis: History and Wikis

I go down to JFCOM quite often, made easier now that I’m living just upriver.  And I have a reason for a side-trip next time.  My wife’s been doing her family’s genealogical research, and recently traced her mother’s line back to (and beyond) Christopher Newport, the earliest of Virginians, noted pirate, responsible for the first democratic election on the American continent, and purveyor of baby crocodiles to King James I. 

His longest voyage was his last, as he died in Indonesia.  But his most famous was in command of the Susan Constant (and accompanying ships Godspeed and Discovery) in 1606-07, from London to the Chesapeake Bay, where he and his crew founded the Jamestown colony.  So I’d like to visit the replica of the Susan Constant at its dock in the James River on my next visit down that way.

The Wikipedia article about the Susan Constant has basic information on the ship, but I was doing some other searching for its history and came upon a ship-modelers’ website (“Ships from the Age of Sail Database“) that has data on lots of 16th and 17th century ships.  Directly above the Susan Constant listing, I noticed the following:

Sovereign of the Seas: HMS Sovereign of the Seas; First Rate; Length:38.7 m (keel); Beam: 14.2 m; 1,141 tons; Armament: 106 guns; 20 cannon drakes, 4 demi-cannon drakes and 4 demi-cannon on the lower gun deck; 24 culverin drakes, 6 culverins and 4 demi-cannon on the middle gun deck; 38 demi-culverin drakes, 4 demi-culverins and 2 culverin drakes on the upper gun deck; Woolwich Dockyard, England; 1637. The Royal Navy’s most lavish ornamented and expensive ship of the day. Slow and cumbersome, she nevertheless saw action during all three Anglo-Dutch wars. In 1703 she was destroyed by a candle mishap at Chatham.” [Emphasis added.]

Now, that’s from a site for ship-lovers, and presumably they know their facts. Meanwhile the Wikipedia page on “HMS Sovereign of the Seas” has more information but is less conclusive, saying she burned “having been set on fire either by accident, negligence or design.”  Unfortunately there’s no link to any more specific information on the ignominious end to what was “the most extravagantly decorated warship in the Royal Navy, completely adorned from stern to bow with gilded carvings against a black background.”  The Wikipedia “discussion” and “history” pages hold no clue to any controversy or further development of the “candle-mishap” story, and I don’t have the time or inclination to delve into the issue further.

Who’s right?  Was the Royal Navy’s “most expensive ship” brought down by a simple candle mishap?

That’s where the wisdom of the crowd could take over…  I can’t edit a question into the ship-modelers’ site, because it is static – not a wiki.  However one could always stir the pot by editing in the candle angle to the Wikipedia page, citing the other website as a source.  That might draw out someone with more definitive historical evidence for what happened to this once-mighty military weapons system, its C2 power destroyed by a simple “candle mishap.”

Update:  Shortly after posting this blog, a brilliant first comment was posted, and then the second comment below was posted, signifying success in my invitation to “the crowd” to update the Wikipedia entry for HMS Sovereign of the Seas.  If you don’t know Ed Vielmetti, he’s a Usenet pioneer, co-creator of alt.zines, and was famously cited by Tim Berners-Lee in one of the very first examples of “surfing the web” back in 1992. And, he’s obviously interested in good wiki gardening.  I recommend Ed’s blog “Vacuum” – his entrancing “Kibo approach to Twitter Zero” post is thought-provoking in the extreme, winding up with a tellingly appropriate passage from the greatest book of the 20th Century.


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15 Responses

  1. Thought provoking post. Right at the end you hit on the very thing that I kept wondering about as I read:

    “That might draw out someone with more definitive historical evidence for what happened to this once-mighty military weapons system”

    I’m not sure it matters in this case whether the medium is editable only by owners or by anyone. An encyclopedia is never more than a summary at best. I do certainly agree with your hunch that wiki-ness could attract an *expert.* And so what has me wondering is the question of how important identity is to this equation. It’s ironic that your example uses CAC.

    An expert could edit the entry with an explanation and evidence, citing appropriate sources. Example: “A diary from Ensign Oliver Smith seems to provide eye-witness accounting of how a heavy storm rocked the ship, overturning an unattended candle. The diary is scanned into microfiche at the Library of Virginia, ref #…” After that we make a choice about whether that is “proof enough.” Doubtful many will go to the library and pull up the film. Who is to say when the explanation is convincing and detailed enough to believe? It really takes one or more experts in the system to lend sufficient credibility, especially when the subject is critical/high value/contentious. But trust is always at play, even for the most seemingly insignificant topics.

    So, I would assert that the role of identity needs to be brought closer to the surface with respect to wikis and crowd wisdom. Put simply, an editor’s profile should be more easily accessible (visible?). I mean, profiles are all over blogs, miniblogs, media sharing sites, and the like. Why should wiki be different? I guess we probably associate our recollection of a traditional encyclopedia, expecting the medium to have a certain look-and-feel, to be more textbook like; just the facts ma’am. We need to give that up in wiki land. In fact, there is every reason to believe that there are big upsides to more accessible/visible identity. Certainly within government I’ve come across many groups who are keenly interested in expert location systems. There prevailing attitude is always a centrally maintained database. I say increase the association of identity with content and you will find your expert(s).

    Hope I didn’t get too off-topic. I think it is relevant to understanding the wisdom of crowd wisdom and the value of wikis.

  2. that’s what talk pages on wikipedia articles are for:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:HMS_Sovereign_of_the_Seas

    i sourced at least one independent ‘candle’ story but not with anything that I’d say convinced me.

  3. Great scott! The legendary Ed Vielmetti reads and responds. I’m honored, also appreciative of the swift and elegant way you address the Sov-of-the-Seas wiki page issue. Well done, and proves my point :-) Now back to your Twitter Zero project…

  4. here’s a more authentic resource:

    http://www.thesovereignoftheseas.com/

    “This website is dedicated to the English warship Sovereign of the Seas – The most magnificent ship in the Royal Navy”

    There’s some fine art of search or research that comes into play when trying to figure out this stuff – typically at least you don’t go from casual reference to “here’s the page in the microfilm”. I’ll wonder out loud if those research skills are easy to describe and/or still being taught in useful ways.

  5. Yes, Edward, my point exactly. Chances are that only a person or persons who are (deeply) intellectually invested in this period in history (i.e., in the subject) will know with reasonable certainty. With talk pages, you’ve added to the discussion and also to the list of references, but as you have said, none of us feels you’ve gotten to the bottom of it. The only way to know for sure is to connect the casual reference to an actual historical document, doesn’t have to be microfilm. Short of that we need an expert between the casual reference and the authentic artifact. Enthusiastic researchers using the public Internet is often beneficial but not enough to be conclusive. BTW, I learned reading Colonial diaries on microfilm circa 1990 in the Dept. of History at Virginia Tech. It’s certainly not a good way to search for the answer. On the other hand, if, having digitized and tagged the texts one could search. But even then I’d want that *picture* of the original document linked to digital content. Now I am off-topic… Also, I think there’s something to be said here for “good enough.” Don’t want to harp too much on evidence or proof. Great contributions all around, Edward, thanks!

  6. [...] than 24 hours after the home page notice went up, I was alerted to a thoughtful and interesting post from someone who has been in the business much longer than I. Fortunately, he understood the intent [...]

  7. One key to the use of wikipedia (which I am still learning) is to use some of the tools they have to tag information which is incomplete, uncertain, or poorly sourced. If you look at the wikipedia page in question now, there’s a piece which I added which mentions the candle story along with a “citation needed” tag. So at the very least you identify some gap in the article which some future wikipedian might address.

    There are a lot of variations on this editorial commentary, and when you add these tags to the pages you signal to the editor base in that system (which is typically different from the subject matter expert base) that there’ something that needs editorial attention.

    Frankly, though, it’s more effective as an outsider to post something to your own blog and then drive traffic to the page in question, rather than to fix the system from within. It takes too much commitment to wikipedia to figure out the editorial system and twist it to get it to do your work.

    BTW, I learned reading boxes of late 19c and early 20c typescript manuscripts and copies of letters at the Bentley Historical Library at the U of Michigan. In that project there were pounds of paper for every quotable insight you gained. I did that project pre-wiki (and mostly pre-computer) so that added a certain complication.

  8. found it, posted here:

    http://vielmetti.typepad.com/vacuum/2008/10/why-did-the-roy.html

    the original courts martial records for a certain Thomas Couch are at the Archives at Kew, kind of a long way from here but I would know where to go to find them.

  9. I tip my hat to you, sir.

    What is the moral to this story?

  10. two methods, triangulation and successive refinement, are the keys. everything else falls into place if you get those two right.

  11. Diplopedia’s top level domains are now FOR SALE (diplopedia.com, .net, .org, .mobi, .tv). Interested parties willing to obtain ownership rights over these domains can visit any of them for details.

  12. Laughing … just noticed the spam (or spam-ish) comment from 10/28/2010 :)

  13. What fabulous intrigue in many directions. Hoorah the Susan Constant! Heavily armed you note, and unburdened by gun control. And I had no idea anyone was undertaking the improvement of Wiki-anything. Sweet.

    I’m sure your wife’s ancestoral ship’s Captain piloting “The Royal Navy’s most lavish ornamented and expensive ship of the day” into obscure and dangerous territory, notwithstanding the ship being “Slow and cumbersome” yet seeing “action during all three Anglo-Dutch wars” before ending badly in a candle mishap (Dickens makes reference to a scullery maid’s hair catching fire as she dozed fireside sans permission and set the house aflame), your Captain Christopher Newport would have been thoroughly charmed to discover himself noted and praised these centuries later on the invisible ethersome world wide web. I’m delighted to make his acquaintance through your family and hope you uncover more that pleases.

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