Jonathan’s Card: The Starbucks ‘Get a Coffee, Give a Coffee’ Social Experiment

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The “take a penny, leave a penny” concept works pretty well at diners and convenience stores. But what if, instead of pennies, the currency being shared was digital, and the payments were made by mobile phone? That’s what one mobile app consultant wondered, and he’s now inviting anyone and everyone to use the barcode scanner of his personal Starbucks card to get coffee without opening their wallets. The app consultant’s name is Jonathan Stark, and he describes the enterprise known as “Jonathan’s Card” as “an experiment in social sharing of physical goods using digital currency.” Stark is not affiliated with Starbucks in any way, though the experiment is giving the coffee chain giant plenty of free publicity (at CNN, for example).

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To get a coffee with Jonathan’s Card, download the picture of Starks’ Starbucks card onto your phone. Your phone can then be used to buy goods at Starbucks, provided the balance is sufficient. Starks has created a Twitter account for Jonathan’s Card that automatically sends messages when the card’s balance changes (it ranged from $50 to totally empty between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. today). There’s also a Facebook page for Jonathan’s Card — and yes, the Twitter account and Facebook page are strictly for Jonathan’s Card, not Jonathan the human being.

The convenience store checkout area, of all things, inspired the idea, Starks explains:

Based on the similarity to the “take a penny, leave a penny” trays at convenience stores in the U.S., I’ve adopted a similar “get a coffee, give a coffee” terminology for Jonathan’s Card.

While the experiment can obviously be used to get a free coffee, the hope is that there will be as much giving as getting:

If you’re feeling generous, you can also add money to my Starbucks card by doing this and enjoy some serious good karma.

Starks, who started the card off with a balance $30, gives instructions on how to add money to the card, and while there have been signs some people are taking advantage of Jonathan’s Card — some users may have even transferred the balance to their own Starbucks cards — the balance has fluctuated rapidly as it’s alternately used up and refilled by everyday people who want the experiment to continue.

Over at Bundle, for instance, an editor used Jonathan’s Card to pay for an iced coffee, then decided to pay it forward by adding $10 to the card. By the time his co-worker tried to use the card to pay for his own drink, however, the balance was back to zero — because by then, people in other Starbucks had already used up the money on the card. Over the last day or so, the card’s balance seems to be drifting back and forth between $0 and $50.

In any event, it seems like Starks is the one enjoying especially good karma at the moment. People have reached out thanking him for renewing their faith in humanity. The Facebook page is loaded with messages relaying recent adventures using (and reloading) the card, along with notes of gratitude — for the free coffee or donut, and for coming up with the idea itself. Among the posts that rehash using the card and adding money to the account are pats on the back like this:

This is just like being kind and holding the door for someone in the WiFi age! Thanks Jonathan have a great day!

Starks is also benefiting because all the coffee being purchased through his account has resulted in a stream of coupons for free coffee, as part of the Starbucks rewards program. These are old-fashioned physical coupons, not the digital sort, so they can’t easily be e-spread among the masses. Starks says he’s trying to figure out a good way distribute the coupons. It shouldn’t be hard to find people willing to take them.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.