Jonathan’s Card: A Social Experiment Gone Awry?

By now, I’m sure that many of you have heard about “Jonathan’s Card”. For those that haven’t, here are the basics: Jonathan Stark, a mobile application consultant and author, purchased a Starbucks card and put $100 on it. On July 14th, he put it out to the world. He took a screenshot of his card and posted it online for people to download as a .jpg to their smartphones. The barcode would scan at Starbucks just as if you were using the Starbucks mobile payment app.

The idea Jonathan had was a social experiment. In the spirit of “Take a penny, leave a penny,” his thought was to see if people would “Take a coffee, leave a coffee”. I actually like to think about it in terms of paying for the person behind you, which has garnered some attention to Starbucks for people doing this at the drive-thru. Jonathan’s hope is that people would use the card and then reload it for others to use. He set up a barebones website that explains what to do. He also set up a Twitter account, @jonathanscard, that tracks the use of the card and gives an update every time there is activity. I’ve been following the card’s activity, and usually there is between $5 and $10 on it. There have been may times where it has reached zero. But it is constantly recharged. To date, there has been almost $9,000 added to the card by over 500 people.

However… It also leaves open the possibility of abuse. Instead of purchasing a coffee or a latte, there have been some stories of people using it to purchase more expensive merchandise. And then comes this…

Sam Odio, an Internet entrepreneur, has intentionally transferred $625 from Jonathan’s Card to his personal Starbucks card. In addition, he coded a computer script that he posted online (no, I will not provide a link for this) which alerts the user when the card reaches a certain limit. You could download this script, set up your laptop at your local Starbucks, and when you get the alert, go to the counter and transfer the balance. Odio adds insult and justifies his actions by stating that Starks’ experiment is just “Yuppies buying yuppies coffee”.

Odio says that he is going to put his personal card on eBay, and then donate the money to Save The Children.

Here’s the thing… While his actions aren’t ethical, they aren’t technically illegal. Or are they? If I rob a bank, but then donate the money to charity, is that ok? If I add money to Jonathan’s Card, I’m doing it with a certain expectation. My hope is that it is going to buy somebody else a cup of coffee. Not to be added to some idiot’s personal card and used for something I didn’t intend. I know that there are bad people out there who abuse the system. I like to think that there are more good. My personal opinion is that Sam Odio is stealing, and should therefore be arrested and prosecuted.

Jonathan Stark has decided not to intervene or shut down the card, which I applaud. I guess in it’s way, it becomes part of the experiment.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Starbucks partner as a part-time Barista.

UPDATE: The experiment is over.  Starbucks has pulled the plug and is shutting off the card. Here’s the notice from Jonathan.