The Vast Starbucks Conspiracy: Jonathan’s Card Wasn’t Faked

The Internet (namely the corner populated by some dude with a coffee blog) is a place where no good deed goes unpunished. A few days ago, Jonathan Stark posted his Starbucks card online asking people to buy coffee and then recharge the card when it was falling low. The result? Lots of good will, lots of people with free coffee, and my day was improved immensely by being able to write about something nice for a change. Then this post started circulating claiming that Jonathan was a viral shill for the Starbucks chain and that he was, in fact, mercenarily driving up Starbucks sales through his act of kindness.

You see, Stark works for a company called Mobiquity and, at some point, the company did work for Starbucks. When the negative post went up, the Mobiquity client list disappeared down and – get this – the Google cache of the page disappeared. It was then that author, Mr. Hetzel, really found out how deep this rabbit hole was about to go:

UPDATE AUGUST 9, 2011 7:30AM HST: The Mobiquity Inc “Client” page cache has been deleted from Google; clearly someone is following this post and cleaning up loose ends on the Jonathan’s Card scheme to make it appear more organic. Don’t worry boys, I got screenshots.

Don’t worry, boys. He’s got screenshots. Clearly Starbucks has their hands in some pretty powerful pockets if they can convince Google to erase all knowledge of an insidious caffeinated crime. Concerned that I was being conned, I talked to Jonathan who said, when I asked him about his relationship to Starbucks, “My only connection to Starbucks is that I spend a lot of time at the Wayland Square Store in Providence, RI.” I then contacted Starbucks itself, expecting to see a curt reply and a whole mess of Google cache pages to mysteriously disappear relating to the Zapruder film and the source of solar flare activity. Instead, I got a nice note:

Thanks for reaching out. Starbucks had no knowledge of Jonathan’s plans, and has no official relationship with him or the company he works for. We do think his project is interesting and we’re flattered that he is using Starbucks as a part of his ‘pay-it-forward’ experiment and look forward to watching it develop.

Case closed, but not quite. The saddest thing about this is that Jonathan is actually upset by the accusations. He wrote:

The thing that really bothers me is that the accusation threatens to erase the good feelings generated by this. He’s turning hope into remorse.

While doing so might be disruptive to my friends and family, I feel strongly that I owe it to believers everywhere to take a stand against cynics who are too jaded to believe that anyone would ever do something nice for others for the simple reason that it feels good.

I think Mr. Hetzel owes Jonathan an apology and all of us a coffee. After all, sometimes a social payments experiment is just a social payments experiment.

UPDATE – Mobiquity replied:

Jonathan Stark is a creative and innovative thinker, who pushes the limits of technology. And that’s what Mobiquity is all about: innovation in mobile technology. To be clear, the “Jonathan’s Card” experiment was in no way a paid viral campaign conducted with or on behalf of Starbucks. Rather, as Jonathan has explained, the idea came about as he was researching mobile payment ideas for another organization.

Mobiquity has no professional affiliation with Starbucks. As a young company launched this past March, Mobiquity had initially included on its website the logos of companies with whom members of our team had worked with in the past, as we stated on the page. Mobiquity took down the l page in late July as part of an ongoing site redesign – complete coincidence, not conspiracy. Jonathan Stark was not the Mobiquity team member who had previously worked with Starbucks. But he does admit to liking their coffee. If you read Jonathan’s original post on the subject on July 14th, you’ll see he was as surprised as anyone else that his experiment in “broadcasting money” (by taking a screenshot of his Starbucks card barcode via his iPhone and emailing it to himself to use on his Nexus S) was successful. Jonathan’s exact quote was, “I bought a coffee with a picture.”