Free Coffee, Bad Apples, and the Future of Currency


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What would happen if the entire world could share a single Starbucks card? For a week in the summer of 2011, Jonathan's Card attracted international attention attempting to find out.

Join Jonathan for a behind the scenes look at how it worked, what actually happened, and the long term implications of an experiment in radical sharing of physical goods using digital currency on mobile phones.

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  • \n
  • In the summer of 2011, I posted a picture of my Starbucks card online and invited the internet use it to share coffee with each other. What happened next blew my mind and changed my life. \n
  • It turns out that the internet *loves* coffee :) \n
  • Over $19,000 passed through the card in a five day period.\n
  • Think about this. *Thousands* of people donated their hard earned money during an economic downturn into a pool to be used by strangers who they would never meet, and without any hope of a thank you. \n
  • The question is: why did they do it? \n
  • Before we can answer that question, I need to explain how it worked. \n
  • You go to a Starbucks and get a card.\n\n\n
  • You register the card on and link it to your credit or debit card. \n
  • You install the starbucks app on your smartphone.\n
  • You link the card to the app\n
  • You pay for coffee by launching the app and displaying the barcode. The barista scans the barcode and the amount is deducted from your card. \n
  • \n
  • I posted picture of card on my blog. A dozen or so of my friends tried it out. It worked for some, who were blown away. I felt bad for those who were too late, so I refilled it a couple times. \n\nKEY POINT: I was shocked that a blog post had motivated people to stop what they were doing, get up from their desk, and leave their home or office. For me, this was unprecedented and I had an inkling that something unique was happening. \n\n
  • The next day, the card balance went up by itself. I freaked, because my first thought was that someone had guessed my password and was siphoning money out of my linked debit card (i.e., my personal checking account).\n\nIt turned out that one of my dev buddies figured out that anyone could anonymously donate to the card online using the number or in a store using the barcode. \n\nI was floored by the implications of this and spent the entire weekend programming three things: \n1) A static HTML web page that described the experiment \n2) An automated script that tweeted out the current balance every minute\n3) An API that other developers could use to work with the data\n\n
  • Jonathan's Card page and Twitter feed go live on July 18th.\n\nASIDE: I purposely used a static HTML page for the Jonathan’s Card page because I had a sneaking suspicion that it was going to get a lot of traffic and I was afraid my self-hosted wordpress blog wouldn’t be able to handle it (this is more of a knock against my crappy server than wordpress, btw). \n\n
  • Jonathan's Card Twitter feed check the card balance every minute and tweet when the balance had changed from the previous tweet. When the balance was $0, a link was included that asked “Can you spare a coffee?” with a bitly link to the instructions on how to fill the card. \n\n
  • Driving to a farmstand in southern RI and I get a flood of email notifications that people are starting to follow @jonathanscard. \n
  • I Googled around a bit and discovered that @bjepson had blogged about Jonathan's Card on \n\n
  • On Monday, August 8th 2011, all hell broke loose. \n
  • Jonathan's Card story hits CNN, Time, Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, LA Times, etc...\n\n
  • Jonathan's Card story hits CNN, Time, Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, LA Times, etc...\n\n
  • Jonathan's Card story hits CNN, Time, Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, LA Times, etc...\n\n
  • Media inquiries start coming in from radio and TV\n\n\n
  • Our local NBC affiliate interviewed me in front of my regular Starbucks. \n
  • MSNBC interviewed me live on August 11th, 2011\n
  • Conversation on Twitter feed became unmanageable so Erica suggested setting up a Facebook page for the card. It turned out to be a genius move. \n
  • Uplifting stories start pouring in on the Facebook page. Erica had to start monitoring the Facebook page nearly round the clock.\n
  • One particular story in particular stuck in my head about a guy who had to scan the card 20-30 times to buy sandwiches for a couple homeless dudes. As nice as the guy was, I was most impressed that the barista had the patience to let some guy scan his card repeatedly for what must’ve been several long minutes. \n
  • As David Lee Roth once famously said, “If you stick your head above the crowd, someone will eventually throw a rock at it.”\n
  • Odd balances were cropping up that didn’t make immediate sense so people started wondering aloud whether something fishy was going on. For example, the balance on Twitter would go from $0 to $7.23 which seemed impossible because online you could only add even amounts like $10, $25, $35, and $50. It even took me a while to figure it out, but it turned out that people would order a coffee, hand a $10 bill to the barista and have them put the change on the card. \n\nAlso, people didn’t understand that the twitter feed was not a transaction by transaction account of the card balance. Rather, it was a snapshot taken once per minute. When the volume spiked, dozens of transactions were happening per minute. So, the card could have a $2.43 balance on Twitter one minute, some kind soul would add $50, and the next minute the balnace would be $0. It would look like the money never went on the card - or worse, that I was somehow siphoning it off.\n
  • People start talking about “tragedy of the commons”\n\nWikipedia:\nThe tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen.\n\nI felt that this was a bad analogy because the resource in question - generosity - is unlimited. No one seemed to agree with me ;)\n
  • Coffee blogger claims Jonathan's Card a viral marketing campaign sponsored by Starbucks. \n\n
  • I become top hit on google for ‘lying corporate stooge’ \n\n
  • Hacker blogs about stealing $625 off the card; story gets picked up everywhere\n\n
  • Starbucks is forced to shut down the card on August 12, 2011 at 10pm ET.\n
  • Key sentiment from the card closure statement: \n\n“[T]onight we lose our barcode. But of course, we never needed it in the first place.” \n\n\n
  • In the preceding 5 day the card had accumulated 9k fans on facebook...\n\n
  • 12k followers on twitter...\n\n
  • My site received nearly three quarters of a million page views in August 2011, 124,126 of which occurred on a single day (8/12/2011).\n\n\n
  • \n
  • \n
  • An interview with my local tv news was seen all over the world. Friends in Australia saw it!\n
  • There is a symbyotic relationship between mainstream outlets and bloggers.\n
  • The size and speed of viral growth are mind boggling. A side effect of this is that things instantly become out of your control - one day you’re driving the bus, the next day you’re strapped to the front of it. \n\nInterestingly, people on the outside assume you are still in control after the thing goes viral, when really the best you can do is to nudge the conversation in one direction or the other. \n
  • Of the thousands of people who used the card, exactly one contacted me asking about security concerns. My takeaway from this is that most people are ready and willing to buy stuff with their phones. \n
  • So back to our question... Why did thousands of people donate money to strangers? \n
  • I believe it's because the vast majority of people are good and generous and enjoy sharing. The combination of social networking, mobile computing, and electronic payments creates an environment when anything is possible. \n\nSuper cheesy cliché? Yep. But I think it really is as simple as that. \n
  • \n
  • Save this image to your phone, go to Starbucks and check the balance. If there’s money on it, feel free to use it. If not, consider adding some. Either way, please tweet out the balance with the hashtag #SXfreecoffee so others will know how it’s going :)\n
  • Free Coffee, Bad Apples, and the Future of Currency

    2. 2. 2
    3. 3. Internet LOVES coffee :) 3
    4. 4. $19,000 in one week 4
    5. 5. Thank you! 5
    6. 6. Why? 6
    7. 7. How it worked... 7
    8. 8. 8
    9. 9. 9
    10. 10. 10
    11. 11. 11
    12. 12. 12
    13. 13. July 14th, 2011 13
    14. 14. 14
    15. 15. July 15th, 2011 15
    16. 16. 16
    17. 17. 17
    18. 18. August 6th, 2011 18
    19. 19. 19
    20. 20. August 8th, 2011 20
    21. 21. 21
    22. 22. 22
    23. 23. 23
    24. 24. 24
    25. 25. 25
    26. 26. 26
    27. 27. 27
    28. 28. 28
    29. 29. 29
    30. 30. 30
    31. 31. Trouble in paradise 31
    32. 32. 2 + 2 = 3? 32
    33. 33. 33
    34. 34. 34
    35. 35. 35
    36. 36. 36
    37. 37. 37
    38. 38. “So, tonight we lose our barcode. But of course, we never needed it in the first place.” 38
    39. 39. 39
    40. 40. 40
    41. 41. 41
    42. 42. Lessons 42
    43. 43. Starbucks baristas are extremely patient 43
    44. 44. Mainstream media still has lots of eyballs... 44
    45. 45. ...but they’re closelyfollowing online news 45
    46. 46. Viral growth is staggering 46
    47. 47. People are happy to buythings with their phones 47
    48. 48. Why? 48
    49. 49. Sharing feels good 49
    50. 50. Wanna try it? 50
    51. 51. 51