Jonathan's Card: Lessons from a social experiment

What happens when everyone has access to your Starbucks card? Jonathan Stark found out.

Earlier this summer, author Jonathan Stark (@jonathanstark) launched a social experiment by releasing his Starbucks card to the general public. Based on the “take a penny, leave a penny” tray near some stores’ cash registers, Stark encouraged people to use his Starbucks card — to spend the money on it and/or to add cash back to it. While Stark never put any stipulations on the process, some observers were taken aback when another developer, Sam Odio, explained how to use Jonathan’s card to buy an iPad.

It’s been several months since Starbucks shut down the experiment, and now that the frenzy around it has subsided, I asked Stark a few questions about what motivated him to begin the project and what he learned in the process.

Why did you launch the Jonathan’s Card experiment?

Jonathan StarkJonathan Stark: The motivation stemmed from my underlying belief that the vast majority of people are good. An opportunity to test this belief in public and on a global scale clicked with me at a very deep level. I couldn’t have articulated this at the time, but it became very clear in retrospect.

For what it’s worth, here’s how the experiment got started:

I had been testing various mobile payment solutions while doing research for a client project. Starbucks’ iPhone app was pretty cutting edge at the time, and I liked it. I wanted to test the app on an Android phone, but Starbucks had not yet released their Android app, so I took a screenshot of the in-app barcode on my iPhone and emailed the picture to my Android device. Sure enough, the barcode reader at the Starbucks point-of-sale (POS) system was able to read the picture of the barcode on my Android phone. This blew my mind because I had essentially emailed money to myself and bought physical goods with a digital photo.

Screenshot of Jonathan Stark's Starbucks cardA screenshot of Jonathan Stark’s Starbucks card (click to enlarge).

As far as I knew, this was unprecedented. So, I did what any self-respecting geek would do: I blogged about it.

In the blog post, I invited readers to download the card image to their smartphones and see if it worked for them elsewhere in the US and around the world. It did work all over the US and in a handful of places outside the US. People who used it were amazed and delighted. It was really fun giving out free coffee, so I reloaded the card online a few times. Eventually it got a bit pricey, so I figured it’d be a once in a while thing.

Then one Saturday night, I noticed that my card balance had gone up. This freaked me out because the app is linked to my debit card and I thought someone might have guessed my password and was emptying my checking account. Fortunately, this was not the case. What had actually happened was that one of my friends discovered that he could anonymously add money onto my card using the picture of the barcode, either in person at the POS or by entering the number at

At this point, my head exploded. I instantly realized that I could use the picture of the card to create a worldwide “pay it forward” experiment. I was up all night building a landing page that described the experiment, gave instructions on how to use the card, and how to donate to the card. I also wrote a script that scraped every minute for the current card balance — whenever the balance changed, the card would tweet its balance. When the card balance went to $0, it would tweet for help with a link to the instructions on how to donate.

What surprised you the most about the experiment?

Jonathan Stark: There were a lot of surprises. It’s hard to say what surprised me most. Here’s a list of biggies:

  • That Starbucks let the experiment go on for as long as it did. Sharing the card goes against the company’s terms of use, and it could have been killed right away.
  • I was surprised how many people were perfectly comfortable with the concept of buying things with their phones. It seems to me that the average smartphone user is more willing to accept the “mobile wallet” concept than industry analysts would lead you to believe. I expected more people to have security concerns. I think I only got two questions about that.
  • How fast and huge something gets when it goes viral. I was getting contacted by network TV producers within days once the experiment took on a life of its own.
  • How addictive the Twitter feed was. By the end, @jonathanscard had more than 9,000 followers, many of whom later told me that they were watching it like TV, cheering when someone would make a big donation, booing when someone would spend $100 at a pop.
  • How generous most people are. I was amazed how many people were willing to throw $10, $20, even $50 into the pool to buy a coffee for some anonymous stranger. In one week, more than $19,000 went through the card.
  • How accommodating Starbucks baristas are. We heard stories about people bringing all sorts of wacky stuff up to be scanned: digital cameras, laptops, iPads, and so on. People who didn’t have any mobile devices even took to printing the barcode out and scanning it like a coupon.

What are the broader implications from this experiment?

Jonathan Stark: There is no doubt in my mind that the experiment would not have taken off like it did without the Twitter feed. It was addictive, interactive, and simple. Once the community grew and started to engage with each other we had to create a Facebook page to allow people to have threaded conversations. Twitter became the card’s data feed and Facebook was where people talked about it. Both were critical but in very different ways.

Starbucks doesn’t have an API, which I think is a big missed opportunity. Retailers want to make sticky and engaging loyalty programs, right? One great way to do that would be to publish an API that allows third-party developers to build on top of a loyalty program in all sorts of delightful and unexpected ways. One thing everyone was asking for during the experiment was a heat map of where the purchase activity was taking place. Because there was no API, I couldn’t provide this — which is too bad because it probably would have become viral in its own right.

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This interview was edited and condensed.


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