The End of Jonathan’s Card

Culture, Featured, Social Experiments — By on August 15, 2011 at 11:18 am

Last Friday, the world lost Jonathan’s Card. If you are unfamiliar with Jonathan’s social experiment, the idea was that he bought a gift card, uploaded an image that could be scanned on any smartphone to the web, and encouraged people to use it and add money to it at their whim and desire. You could follow the card’s balance via twitter, or just take a gamble at your local Starbucks by ordering and scanning it. People would add money either via the web or in person, and the card fluctuated in value rather rapidly.

The card had people putting on large amounts of money at times, the highest I saw was around one hundred dollars, though the average addition was around ten bucks. It seems that money did not last long on the card, usually going from full to empty in a matter of minutes. Of course, this was offset by people loading the card again within another ten or twenty minutes, usually.

The creator of the card, Jonathan Stark (no relation to Iron Man), did this as a social experiment. He wanted to let people rely on the goodness of others, while at the same time have a place to express their own desires to be generous. The target market is not exactly the group that most needs charity (those with smartphones who are going to Starbucks frequently), but it still proved an interesting look into how people interact with group-funded and group-used charity.

I am not one who puts a lot of stock in humanity as a whole. We’ve been known to do some pretty evil things, on a global scale and on a personal scale, but I thought this card was a refreshing look at people looking to just make other people’s lives better. What I think would be fascinating would be to look at the ratio of free drinks bought to money added, for each person that used the card. Did people use this card just because it was free, or did they add to the card as well (perhaps more than they used)? I’m not sure the answer will ever be found (how would you track that?), but I think that would be an interesting and more useful statistic.

Starbucks, however, has shut down the card. Turns out my lack of faith in humanity might have been relatively well-founded: the reason for the shut down seems a reasonable one to me: someone had been siphoning money from the card. The man who was taking money from the card was supposedly doing it for charity, though many have questioned his motives. Stark himself had said that the transferring was simply not in the spirit of the experiment. Starbucks, who had left the card open in spite of it violating their terms of use, had finally decided to shut the card off after learning about this breach of experiment.

I do kind of think the hacker’s action fit right in with the experiment, though. The idea was to explore how generous people were, and the hacker proved exactly how ungenerous an individual can be: siphoning money for unintended purposes. While he seems to think of himself as a sort of Robin Hood, the general consensus among most, including Starbucks itself, is that his actions violated the terms of the experiment.

The card’s life may be over, but Jonathan encourages the experiment to continue. The pay-it-forward mentality of visiting your local coffee shop seems to be the end-goal of the experiment. If the Facebook page is any indication, people are still buying coffee for others, either by paying for the next car in a drive through or buying a gift card and leaving it with the cashier to use for the next customers until it is used up.

I am glad to see this going on, though I’m not sure how effective it will be in encouraging people to be better to one another. After all, this is not the first time a pay-it-forward experiment has taken place, and it likely will not be the last. Many times these sorts of things flare up for awhile and then dissolve nearly as quickly as they came into existence, even without the aid of a hacker. Experiments may come and go, but hopefully the desire to bless others and be kind to our fellow coffee drinkers will live on.

image via flickr.


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  • Kitty

    I would agree with your sentiment expressed about midway through the article. :3
    Odio himself explains his position quite well and demonstrates why there’s so much actual anger: people are more interested in the outcome (free coffee) than in the actual experiment (can I be selflessly generous?)

    If the experiment were about whether or a system can survive the problem of leeches who take and don’t give, then Odio certainly screwed up the experiment.

    But Stark himself declared the experiment to be about relying on the goodness of others, to encourage a giving spirit and promote the common good. If that’s the case, coffee is an incredibly narrow field for that sort of thinking and Odio, acting in the spirit of caring for the common good, has expanded the field of the experiment: will people still donate if they know their money is going to both coffee and feeding hungry people?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/RachelMotte Rachel Motte

    I guess someone else is taking on the experiment: http://talkaboutdesign.com/starbucks/ Either that or they’ve figured out that this could be a good way to get some low-cost publicity.