Jonathan’s Card, A Social Experiment Starring Starbucks

On July 14, 2011, Jonathan Stark, a guy who develops apps for a living, decided to buy the world a cup of coffee. Well, okay — he decided to buy a cup of coffee for a few strangers as a way to test a theory he has about buying things with photographs. He never quite explains the theory he was testing, but when he posted a picture of his Starbucks coffee card online along with instructions on how to use the photo to get a cup of free Starbucks coffee — well, free to the end user, since Stark was footing the tab — he started a mini-avalanche of publicity and a flood of free coffee.

Stark’s experiment started as a flash of inventive ingenuity, a la necessity if the mother of inventive ingenuity. The software developer had associated his Starbucks card with his iPhone. When he bought a new Android Smartphone he found, to his chagrin, that he could only associate the coffee card with one phone at a time. For a few days, he swapped the card back and forth between the two phones, but found it annoying that he had to go through the swapping process every time he decided to carry the “other” phone — whichever one didn’t have the Starbucks coffee app on it.

And then he had a lightning bolt of inspiration — the card app was just a picture of a card. Would a picture of the picture work just as well? He took a screenshot of his iPhone Starbucks coffee app, emailed it to his Nexus Android phone and saved it in his picture gallery. The next time he stopped in at Starbucks — and seriously, does anyone believe that he didn’t buzz right down there to test it out? — he opened up the photo on his Nexus phone and — paid for his coffee with a picture of his Starbucks coffee card.

That’s when he decided to open up his Starbucks card to the general public — or at least the general public that enjoys a Starbucks coffee. He posted about his inspiration on his blog, along with a picture of his Starbucks card and invited readers to buy a coffee on him. He started the coffee fund off with $30, added another $50 when it ran low by early afternoon and intended to close out his experiment when the card ran out of money at around 7:30 p.m. — but then someone threw a monkey wrench into his experiment.

They reloaded the card anonymously, using the account number printed in the picture of the Starbucks card.

From there, the experiment took off and developed a life of its own. The story of Jonathan’s card made the rounds of the blogs on the Internet, and was picked up after a couple of weeks by major news organizations, including CNN. Jonathan reloaded the card himself a few times, but for the most part, it has been kept in circulation by anonymous donations made by people who were paying it forward.

In the month since Stark decided to buy the world a coffee, his Starbucks card has been used nearly 1,300 times. It has been reloaded nearly 900 times. People all over the world have loaded more than $10,000 onto his coffee card. And, as might be expected, some people have found ways to take advantage of the generosity of others.

On August 12, not quite a month after Jonathan Stark first posted a picture of his Starbucks coffee card online for others to buy a coffee, entrepreneur Sam Odio posted to his blog that he had created a script that tracked the amount of money on Jonathan’s card and, when it reached a certain amount, transferred the amount to his own card. He also, in the spirit of hackers everywhere, posted the code for his script so that others could do the same. Odio’s post claimed that he was auctioning the Starbucks card with its $600 on it on eBay and donating the proceeds to Save the Children.

At this writing, Odio’s action has sparked conversations about the nature of charity, including whether buying a cup of coffee for a stranger who can afford an iPhone actually qualifies as charity or whether it’s just a frivolous, feel-good action that has no real effect on the world at all. Stark, when asked whether he’d shut down the card now that someone had demonstrated a way to steal from it, said that his experiment would continue. And as of 4:30 p.m. on Friday, August 12 — nearly five hours after Odio posted the script online, the Twitter account that Stark set up to announce the balance on Jonathan’s card (www./jonathanscard) shows that people are continuing to add money to Stark’s Starbucks card, and people are continuing to use it to buy coffee and/or do other things with it.

The saga of Jonathan’s card continues, at least for now. And Stark’s experiment raises interesting questions about human nature, the exchange of money and the use of a common fund on an honor system. It will be interesting to see whether the experiment — similar to “give a penny, take a penny” jars on store counters — will survive the incursion of those who believe their right to decide the direction of charity for others is more valid than the intention of those who simply want to buy a cup of coffee for a random stranger. To find out if the experiment is still ongoing, check the balance of Jonathan’s card at www./jonathanscard. If you’ve got a little extra, buy a coffee for a stranger. If you’re short, have a cup of coffee through the kindness of someone else who wanted to rack up a bit of good karma.