Coffee and the Case for Collective Intelligence

The complex production, rich history, and culture surrounding coffee has been the object of my obsession for the past year, and will be the subject of this analysis of the successes of collective intelligence on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia platform lends itself well to articles on topics such as coffee because it requires in depth knowledge of a wide variety of subject matters from ancient history to chemistry.

Henry Jenkins defines collective intelligence, the thing that allows Wikipedia to be such a powerful tool, as, “the ability to pool Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 4.47.47 PMknowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal.” A quick look at the table of contents of the article on coffee highlights the diversity of knowledge necessary to flesh out a page of this nature. While the current state of the page is well structured and relatively stable, that wasn’t always the case. The diverse history of coffee has led to conflicting definitions, different versions of history, and a surprisingly opinionated group of coffee drinkers. The product of the passionate differing of opinions is, “vigorous debates about what counts as reliable evidence” (Jenkins). For example, the “Etymology” section offers many possible explanations and the “History” section is broad and comprehensive, covering multiple regions. The differing facts and multiple histories have resulted in an article that, in the end, is well balanced and represents all opinions and facts in a neutral way.

There are downsides of collective intelligence which are also demonstrated in the coffee article. The section labeled “Health and Pharmacology” has a warning at the top due to there being a lack of proper Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 4.49.17 PMsources for verification because many of the new health claims in regards to coffee, while numerous, are largely unsubstantiated. In addition, the article can be confusing at times because coffee was developed in many regions and there are many names for a single thing or many things that share one name. While the confusion with nomenclature is not a problem with collective intelligence, dealing with that problem through collective intelligence can be problematic and confusing.

The beauty of Wikipedia, and the concept of collective intelligence in general, is that such broad and deep topics like coffee can be written about by many individuals. The specialized subsections can be expanded upon by, “…someone who cares deeply about a subject […] and others who share her interests may also contribute” (Jenkins). While I see myself knowledgeable on the chemistry and brewing of coffee, and would even consider adding to those sections on the Wikipedia page, I know very little about roasting and cultivation and the article is a wonderful resource to learn more about those topics. Despite its flaws, collective intelligence allows for broad and complex topics, like coffee, to have resources that address all aspects of that subject.

Jenkins, Henry. “What Wikipedia Can Teach Us About the New Media Literacies (Part One).Confessions of an AcaFan. Henry Jenkins, n.d.


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