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Amber Mac

Free coffee: A social sharing experiment full of beans? Add to ...

Update: A little while after this was published, Jonathan Stark replied to an email I’d sent earlier in the day. There’s a Q&A transcript further down the page.

If you’re familiar with Jonathan’s Card, your next Starbucks purchase could be free. Jonathan Stark is a mobile expert based in the U.S. who recently launched what he calls a “social sharing” experiment. On a one-page site, he has posted a photo of his Starbucks card and encourages visitors to use it to buy coffee. Jonathan’s card gets charged, you don’t.

It’s as simple as saving the image to your smartphone, heading over to your nearest Starbucks and holding the picture in front of the barcode scanner at the cash. Assuming there is enough money on the card, your grande half-sweet vanilla latte is free (or whatever your fave beverage might be).

However, the card will only work as long as people keep putting money on it. Within Starbucks website you can reload the card using the unique number attached to the account (6061006913522430). Jonathan explains that the concept is similar to “take a penny, leave a penny.”

To determine how much money is on the card, you can check out the companion Twitter stream ( @jonathanscard). For example, there was almost $40 available a week ago. Since then, the number has gone up and down regularly as Starbucks users participate.

While there are skeptics, for the most part the web community seems to appreciate this little experiment. As Twitter user @ari_mir says, “This is so creative…I love it.” Monical Runstrom ( @SativaBella) shares that sentiment, “This will be interesting to follow. Might have to go to Starbucks tomorrow.”

Jonathan writes that he is not affiliated in any way with Starbucks and he encourage people to take credit for contributing by using their own social networking streams to spread the love. Will this Starbucks sharefest last or will this experiment highlight the selfish side of humanity? Let us know what you think in the comments. I for one love to see people creating such unique social tests, especially when free java is involved.

Email interview with Jonathan Stark

1. Why are you doing this?

I'm a mobile app consultant, so I'm constantly watching the effect that mobile wireless computing is having on society. I get particularly jazzed by the interaction between the physical world and cyberspace. Once I realized that it would be possible to allow anonymous folks to share digital currency for the purchase physical goods, I just had to try it out to see what would happen.

2. How did you come up with the idea?

I stumbled on the idea for Jonathan's Card while doing research for Mobiquity regarding a mobile project for a large U.S. restaurant chain. Initially, I was field testing every mobile purchasing solution I could find, one of which was the Starbuck Card app. For those who haven't seen the Starbuck Card app, it basically just displays a static barcode that the barista scans to complete your purchase. I wanted to test it on iPhone and Android, but at the time there was no Android app. That's when it occurred to me to take a screenshot of the barcode on the iPhone app and email the picture to my Android phone. When I got to the store, I had the clerk scan the static image on my Android phone and voila! It worked.

My head exploded with the ramifications of this, and I decided to test the limits. I loaded the card with a hundred bucks or so, posted the image on my blog, and invited anyone to try it out for themselves. A couple dozen people tried it and it worked for them. It was fun for everyone, and I felt good giving out some free coffee.

Then one night I got an alert that the balance on my card had gone up without me doing anything, which sent me into a minor panic. I assumed that someone had hacked my starbucks.com account and was reloading my card online from the personal debit card that I have stored there.

Fortunately, that's not what had happened - one of my buddies had discovered that anyone can reload anyone else’s Starbucks card online, as long as they have the number from the back of the card (which is displayed in the picture I posted).

Once I knew that anyone could power up the card, my next steps became obvious. I posted a page of instructions online and opened a Twitter account. Then I wrote a PHP program to scrape the Starbucks site every minute to retrieve the current card balance. Whenever there is a change, the PHP scripts posts the new balance on Twitter.

3. What has surprised you about the experiment?

The main thing that surprised me is the ration of getters to givers. At the moment, it's about 2 people getting for every 1 person giving. Occasionally the card balance will spike and someone will get greedy, but the vast majority of people stick to my request of keeping purchase around $3 - which is sometimes not easy at a Starbucks.

4. What are the total amounts you have spent and people have contributed?

I've personally spent about $300 so far. At the moment $6248.22 has gone through the card, most of which was in the last 48 hours. I'm a big fan of radical transparency, so I set up an API that allows people to see the data in real time. So far, the API has been used to build three graphing apps, and a couple of iPhone and Android apps are being released.

Anyone can check the total amount here.

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Follow on Twitter: @ambermac

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