Would you like some ethics with your coffee? The story of the free Starbucks Card experiment

A couple of weeks ago, an era ended. That’s how you may feel if you were benefiting from Jonathan Stark’s free Starbucks card for the past month. The mobile app developer kicked off something of a social experiment when he made his Starbucks Card barcode freely available online. Instead of succumbing to theft, something uplifting happened: in an effort reminiscent of Jason Rohrer’s Minecraft “Chain World” experiment, users would use, then refill the card so that others could go get themselves a free coffee as well. The community card, boasting over 500 users who added, and made use of, over $8000, reached national news about two weeks ago. It was then that Starbucks learned of a griefer in the midst: 

After about a week in the spotlight, the fun ended. The purported villain is a now-contrite tech entrepreneur named Sam Odio. Because Stark made all kinds of data about the card available, Odio was able to write a script that let him transfer large amounts of money to his own personal card. The program alerted Odio when Stark’s card balance hit a certain level so he could know when to walk to the counter and efficiently transfer larger amounts to his own Starbucks card. 

Starbucks, which purportedly supported Stark’s operation tacitly, kiboshed the community card experiment once they learned of Odio’s script. In the wake of a somewhat bloodthirsty, caffeine-jonesing Internet mob, Odio apologized for causing distress. But he also defended his extraction of $625 from the card by arguing that, in the first place, the money was replaced by his brother, that the script was intended as its own experiment, and that ultimately, his actions weren’t really “stealing”:

“Use of the card itself also had a very broad mandate and anyone in the community could use this card, not just one set of people. No specific withdrawal limits were set, though clearly one was implied.” 

Odio says he’s selling the card on eBay and donating the proceeds to Save The Children. In the meantime, Stark’s experiment has left its legacy: at least three other community cards have been founded, while many have been otherwise inspired by the experiment to participate in acts of kindness and generosity

  –Lana Polansky

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