Skimming Jonathan’s Card For Fun And Philanthrophy

If you’ve been reading the internet regularly this week, you’re probably familiar with Jonathan’s card, a “social payment experiment” amounting to a public Starbucks gift card. You might have bought a coffee with it. You might have contributed to it. You might have suspected it of being a Starbucks viral (it isn’t).

What you probably haven’t done is set up a script to skim money off the card in order to use it for your own nefarious purposes. And by “nefarious purposes,” I mean feeding starving children in Africa. Here comes the ethics!

Sam Odio, who sold Divvyshot to Facebook last year and is currently working on launching Freshplum, whatever that is, has detailed a hack he put together that rather subverts the Jonathan’s card philosophy. Uninspired by the admittedly uninspiring premise of “yuppies buying yuppies coffees,” he set up a script that checks the card’s balance and alerts him whenever it hits a given amount. He then transfers the money to his own card. Just today he’s “earned” $625.

At first I thought this was just an unbelievable jack move by Odio. Odious, if you will. But I too am less than amused with the results of the card (bloggers and entrepreneurs buying bad coffee) than with the idea, which is of course compelling. And of course we run a conference (now coming to Beijing!) called Disrupt, and a Hackathon where this exact behavior is encouraged. It’s just not always quite so — impertinent.

But is impertinence reason to condemn? It’s a social media experiment, after all. Pass a plate around with a dollar on it and you might get the plate back with a hundred — or some else might save you the trouble of counting your money. The idea of a public, unsecured money-transfer device usable all over the country is its own end, and this subversion of the model is just part of the process. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think Odio’s response (turn it on its head) is exactly correct, and I’m glad to see the money going to a good cause (the card is actually $10 above its face value on eBay).

Furthermore, the original experiment is ongoing — it wouldn’t be much of an experiment if it didn’t survive its results. But how will the people who donated feel? Likely cheated — but that’s not really rational, is it? They put their money on the plate. They didn’t buy the plate. Will they continue to donate? Will people clone the script and race to the bottom, transferring pennies to their own balances? I’d say this experiment just got a lot more interesting.

Update: Oops, Starbucks shut the card down almost the moment I posted this. So this experiment just got a lot more over. Well, it would have been interesting.