The feel-good news item last week was Jonathan’s Card. Apparently Starbucks lets people use their phones as a sort of loyalty + gift card by displaying a barcode. Some guy made his barcode public and offered to let anyone use it. What happened was a kind of Starbucks fan circlejerk as some people used up the money and others replenished it. Starbucks let it go on until recently; some say it was a publicity stunt, others believe it was good publicity for them. Jonathan himself framed it as a social experiment.
Here’s the thing about experiments: they conclude, and the results tell you something. There’s plenty of reasonable hypotheses for this but I think they all boil down to, “Will people use a near-anonymous source of giving and receiving money for good or evil?” for various values of good and evil. For example, if no one deposited money, the conclusion would be, “People are too greedy for this to work.”
Sam Odio performed an experiment of his own. He wrote a script to periodically check the balance of the account and when it reached some amount he had the surplus transferred to his own card. He transferred this surplus to Starbucks gift cards and auctioned the cards on eBay, with proceeds going to a charity. His reasoning was the social experiment was silly because its only side effect was buying coffee for people who could already afford it.
The Jonathan’s Card community is enraged. I’m quite amused by this; most people’s rants start something like this:
I put $10 on the card with the intent of buying myself some coffee. When I got to Starbucks the card was empty! Sam Odio stole my money, he’s a thief!
Let’s paint a different story that happened numerous times and no one complained. Someone put $10 on the card, then left for Starbucks. When they arrived, only $2 were on the card. This happened numerous times, I have no doubts. Why was it OK for unknown individuals to spend the $10 on coffee, but theft for Odio to spend it on charity? Anyone could transfer money from Jonathan’s Card to their own. Sam Odio did nothing unique, and never emptied the card. If anything, this was a flaw in the experiment, not humanity.
Since the card allowed transfer of funds, it was more like a community bank account. If you want to buy yourself some coffee, you don’t put it in the community account. You take your $10 and hand it to the cashier. Anyone who put their money on Jonathan’s card should have been comfortable with that money being used for anything at all. If you specifically wanted it to go towards coffee, you should have sought a mechanism that guaranteed the use. Some people have taken to buying Starbucks gift cards and leaving them in random locations.
I think the experiment’s conclusion shows that such a community bank account can work: the card rarely stayed empty for long periods and I’m sure plenty of moochers were kept caffeinated. But if a technique for using the money for non-coffee purchases exists, it will be exploited. Something like this card might have been a convenient way to launder some money, but no one seems to have been worried about that.
Starbucks has shut the card down. If it was a marketing stunt Odio likely helped them realize how this card could be misused. If it wasn’t a marketing stunt I think it reflects poorly on Starbucks: the experiment was great while it was money spent on Starbucks merch and a violation as soon as it was spent on anything else. I think it would have been interesting to see what happened after Odio started his experiment; others would likely copy it. Would they make sure to never empty the card, or would they be greedy and make it impossible for money to stay on the card? We’ll never know because the experiment was shut down as soon as the result didn’t look favorable to Starbucks.