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.
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.