'Jonathan's Card' Raises Interesting Ethical Debate: Who Decides Which Uses Of A Shared Resource Are 'Right'?

from the economics-of-the-commons dept

Over the last few months, there was a fascinating “real” experiment going on. A mobile apps guy named Jonathan Stark opened up his Starbucks mobile app code to the entire world so they could give or take (if there was any money available) at will. He was pretty clear that it was a “social experiment” and he did it to see what happens — not because he necessarily wanted something specific to happen. The info was available for a few weeks without much happening, and then some blogs, followed by the mainstream press, picked up on it, and suddenly it got lots of attention and a fair bit of usage. That’s when something really interesting happened. A guy named Sam Odio heard about it, set up a script that would monitor the amount of money on the card and alert him every time it hit a certain amount. While sitting at a Starbucks, each time the card had enough money on it, he transferred money to his own cards. He sat for about five hours in a Starbucks and was able to effectively “skim” $625 from the card.

And while he noted that $625 is the price of an iPad, and provocatively titled his post “How to use Jonathan’s card to buy yourself an iPad,” in this case Odio took the $625 he got and decided to put the cards on eBay with a promise to donate any proceeds to charity (eBay has a system to confirm that proceeds are donated to the charities named).

Suddenly, the social experiment got even more interesting from a variety of angles. The general sense of “the internet mob” was that Odio somehow “abused” the system or did something wrong. People have called for him to be arrested or physically harmed. Apparently some have reported him to the FBI.

As this was going on, Odio reached out to Stark and asked him if he was okay with how this was going. Stark upped the social experiment another degree by simply posting Odio’s email and responding publicly that:

My impression is not the one that matters. The impressions that matter are those of the people who have been touched by and participated in Jonathan?s Card. If you?d like to speak to them, you can do so on their Facebook page.

Again, the general community response is that Odio is somehow evil. Others are arguing that he somehow “ruined” the experiment. To be honest, I don’t see the logic in most of these arguments, though I understand the emotional place from which they come. Part of the reason why people jumped in to support the whole Jonathan’s Card experiment is because people really do seem to like supporting these types of experiments where it allows people to “feel” altruistic in some ways while supporting the view that humans are “generally good.” Odio’s simplified skimming presents a bit of a shock to the system to a bunch of people who have bought into the argument that “here’s an experiment that shows people are basically good,” because it feels like he’s taking advantage of the system.

I’d argue that emotional feeling, while a legitimate feeling, is misguided. Stark set this up as a social experiment and part of that experiment is what happens and how people react when things don’t quite go according to plan. To some extent, Odio was also just tweaking the knobs on the experiment to see how more people reacted (and, in the end, one could make an argument that what he did may have a better societal benefit than what Stark did). But, obviously, the point that many people are upset about is not that aspect, but just the fact that someone didn’t use the card as those other users thought it was intended to be used. But, the important thing is that Stark made no such restrictions, and Odio doesn’t appear to have broken any laws. He did exactly what Stark allowed when he made the card public.

If anything, part of the social experiment’s results was a reminder that someone could do things like this. But the flipside to the experiment is how the community of supporters reacted, generally acting to express clearly to Odio that they did not like his actions. While that sort of response might not really matter to someone who just wants to take money for free, community pressure can be quite effective in other cases. The real issue, to me, however is that community pressure can be good in some scenarios, but can border on going overboard and creating a “burn him” pitchforks & torches mob at times — and in a few instances seemed to border on that in this case. While I’m a big believer in the ability of communities to police behavior, I do worry about when a community makes an emotional response that isn’t always completely rational, as may have happened here.

All in all, if you view this very much as an experiment, there’s a lot to learn from it. You can see some interesting group dynamics. How people respond to opportunities to be altruistic or to benefit from altruism. And how communities respond when “unwritten” or even “unspoken” rules may be broken, even if they don’t actually violate any real rules. I find it hard to “side” with Stark or Odio or the community here, as it’s one of those cases where I think (and hope) both Stark and Odio have viewed this mainly from an impartial “this is interesting, let’s see what happens” standpoint, rather than any big moral claim.

Either way, for now the experiment is over. Last Friday, Starbucks finally realized what was going on and shut down the card. Still, I imagine we’ll be discussing the implications of this and similar experiments for a long time.

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Companies: starbucks

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Comments on “'Jonathan's Card' Raises Interesting Ethical Debate: Who Decides Which Uses Of A Shared Resource Are 'Right'?”

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D Johnston says:

Philosophy of John Rawls


Odio violated “fairness” within the community of John’s card. Its not that he took more than his share, but that he took enough that could have benefit many others.

The “iPad” description also conveyed further luxury disproportionate to the community base line (some might call a Starbuck’s latte a luxury item already).

What if this were a shared Apple Gift Card and the model was buying an iPad for the customer behind you in line? Would Odio have been unfair then?

What if Odio claimed to have skimmed $625 to donate to Cancer Research rather than coffee? Would it have been unfair then?

Looking at Rawl’s principle’s and considering equal claim and who benefits in different circumstances probably points us in the right direction of evaluating the ethics.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Philosophy of John Rawls

fairness is all fine and good, and part of any utilitarian ideal, though with fairness comes the responsibility that the ‘community’ needs to make it’s ‘moral worths’ up front and known before the actions, otherwise it is an ethical testing mechanism for someone to propose both hypothetical and perform actual actions to see if rules have been decided.

For myself I think Odio’s actions were pragmatically ethical, though now that the community has made there wishes known it would be unethical for others to perform the same actions.

On another point, in response to the article itself. Altruism is fine and good as a theory, but history shows that humans by their very nature are based wholly on loyalty to the self with duty to offspring/family due to the subconscious need for immortality whether in deeds or in genetics.

Anyone who states they are altruistic by nature, needs to really look deep into why they say it and most times it’s about Ego or a sense of needing to get attention.


Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Sharing culture

Sharing and other communal activities are going through a resurgence these days (it was popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and at other points in history). A variety of reasons:

1. Online networking gives us new models.
2. The economy is tough for a lot of people, so anything that reduces costs has appeal.
3. Sharing can reduce consumption, which is good for the planet.

But some missteps with Airbnb demonstrates that not everyone behaves in a trustworthy manner. Unfortunately, we can’t always leave our doors unlocked and assume no one will take things. And even in one-on-one situations, we don’t always agree about who will do the chores, how much money each of us will contribute, etc. Establishing trust and making sure no one feels exploited can take a long time. Entire cultures are built upon these concepts. Some are more trusting and trustworthy than others.

Shareable.net recently asked how sharing services can earn people’s trust, and this was my answer.

Shareable: What do sharing services need to do to earn your trust? Responses from the Shareable Community: “We all know of situations where people take advantage of each other. They don’t do an equal amount of work or they don’t contribute an equal amount or they intentionally abuse the system. So a sharing service either needs to take personal responsibility for that (e.g., some stores will take returns even when it is obvious the person making the return used the product and now just wants a refund) or it needs to create a screening system so that the abusers can’t participate.

Those are tough challenges, but otherwise people will run into problems when they use the services. Maybe most won’t run into problems, but the ones who do will complain and make others wary.”

out_of_the_blue says:

Flawed premise of atypical group.

Affluent young hipsters who frequent Starbucks, who by their presence there show they don’t know the value of a buck. Or how to make coffee. Or that there’s roughly 400 cups per can of coffee: they’re paying about 1000 times the actual cost, proof yet again that capitalism is based on fleecing suckers.

Had anyone from the real world heard of it, the balance would have been more often zero, or the accumulated balance just plain skimmed.

trish says:

Flawed premise of atypical group

“Affluent young hipsters who frequent Starbucks, who by their presence there show they don’t know the value of a buck. Or how to make coffee. Or that there’s roughly 400 cups per can of coffee: they’re paying about 1000 times the actual cost, proof yet again that capitalism is based on fleecing suckers.”

Mcdonalds sells their food at substantially higher price than what I could pay if I cooked it myself. Car manufacturers charge a lot more for a car than I could get a pile of scrap metal the size of a car. if only everyone just stopped making profit off products they sell, everything would be so cheap!
But since you’d be making NO MONEY seeing as there would be NO JOBS, (because how do you pay employees if you don’t make money) you wouldn’t have to worry about buying anything at all! Or getting ‘fleeced’…
Also, what is with the ‘young hipsters’ line about SB customers? When I go all I see are business people in suits. Then again I am in downtown montreal so duh. Is your starbucks near a university or something?

Charles says:

People and Irony

I don’t think he “ruined” the experiment. As Mike said the experiment was to see what would happened. What happened is that it shows while most people are “good” and follow the system the benefits everyone, there will always be someone who cheats it.

However the most ironic part of this is that Odio bought something for himself, but the price went to a charity which arguably does more good than buying coffee for oneself.

Charles (profile) says:

Re: Re: People and Irony

now now, that is giving him to much credit. If he was that noble he would have sent it directly to a charity, or wouldn’t have shown the world he just got a free Ipad (“How to use Jonathan’s card to buy yourself an iPad”).

I wonder what the group’s reaction would have been if he did just send the money straight to a charity. I hate to say it but more than likely they would have been less then pleased if they found out someone is skimming and donating their coffee money.

Never get in the way of people and their coffee addictions :P.

Damin (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 People and Irony

Nope, not Robin Hood at all. Like I mention in my comment below, Sam and his brother put in the same amount they took out purely for self promotion. The charity bit comes across as a moral justification for the way they used Jonathan’s Card. Now that Sam’s eBay account is suspended and the auction is gone, I don’t know what alternative means of donating to the charity he will use or if he will bother at all. There’s been no update from him of his eBay account being suspended.

slick8086 says:


I can’t find the page where Stark lays out his intentions, but as I understand it there were very few if any. Like, “Here is a Starbuck’s card with some money on it have fun.”

It seems like a bunch of people “decided” what it was for. Odio had his own ideas which didn’t seem to mesh with a lot of the other peoples notion of what “should” be done. Then some people called for action against Odio, despite Stark’s lack of comment.

This experiment proves that people can’t agree on shit and have very negative feelings about people who don’t agree with them. Surprise!

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

But maybe the "crowd" was right

Since the experiment didn’t specify how the card was to be used, this also means that the “crowd” could determine how it was going to be used. And while there was no meeting to establish rules, it appears that collectively the users did establish a set of unspoken rules. The card would be used for people to give and share in a manner that allowed for fairly broad group participation. For one person to come along to use the card as he wished may have been okay with Stark, but the experiment had progressed to the point that the card was no longer his to control. Now it was the group’s card. They took control and it’s theirs now.

A similar situation could be a community garden. Let’s say that a landowner donated the land, said it was for a community garden, but made no specifications. Then a group of people put in time and energy to develop it. The garden wasn’t fenced, so at harvest time anyone could come and take food from it, but it was with the unstated understanding that one person wouldn’t come and take all the food, for whatever purpose (even if it was to feed a charity group).

Using both of the above examples, the result is that the group now “owns” the garden or the card, and it is no longer an open experiment.

Stark essentially forfeited control of the entire experiment when he put the card into public hands. And the group decided they with unhappy with Odio’s attempt to take control of “their” card.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: But maybe the "crowd" was right

Read Starks’ response again, he didn’t “forfit” control, he gave control willingly to the crowd.

“My impression is not the one that matters. The impressions that matter are those of the people who have been touched by and participated in Jonathan?s Card. If you?d like to speak to them, you can do so on their Facebook page.”

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: But maybe the "crowd" was right

Read Starks’ response again, he didn’t “forfit” control, he gave control willingly to the crowd.

But, as I understand it, Stark didn’t initially say he was giving control to anyone. It wasn’t defined. But the “crowd” did assume ownership of it, so I’d say that what they did was consistent with the whole concept. Therefore, by the time Odio got involved, the “ownership” of the card was no longer up for grabs. Collectively the “crowd” assumed ownership and Odio wasn’t supposed to do what he did. The “crowd” was responding in an expected manner as property holders.

So, from a property rights perspective, Odio tried to take control of something that wasn’t his.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: But maybe the "crowd" was right

Both your experiments have a underlying fault with them.

unspoken rules. If a rule is unspoken, hidden, invisible, only known whilst ‘speaking in tongues after twirling counter-clockwise at sparrow-fart hour’ it is not a rule and the community has no way of enforcing that ethically.

Especially if the original idea/purpose was open to debate originally. Odio didn’t try to take control of anything since he already had control of it by the implicit statement that ANYONE could do whatever they wish within the experiment (though I would presuppose the caveat of ‘within laws of the jurisdiction where you reside’)

The community didn’t own or even control the card (or garden from your original hypotheses), and for the community to suggest that they did is extremely unethical in itself.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: But maybe the "crowd" was right

The community didn’t own or even control the card (or garden from your original hypotheses), and for the community to suggest that they did is extremely unethical in itself.

So you feel everything must be codified? If an open garden doesn’t say you can’t take everything, then you presume you can take everything? That’s probably why we end up with so many laws and restrictions. People want to clearly spell everything out to make sure there are no misunderstandings.

However, that is going to hamper some shareable experiments. If it means every time you want to share something with someone you have to hand out a massive list of what people can and can’t do, then it becomes cumbersome. On the other hand, you have just pointed on reason there are so many lawyers.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: But maybe the "crowd" was right

Sadly for society to function in a civilised way (civil coming from the organisation of people into cities) there needs to be an organised rule-set that is known to all.

My point with the above is the word ALL. Supposedly the closed community of specific individuals knew of it, but the wider ranging community that Odio was a part of (ie: you, me and the rest of the planet) did not know of these ‘rules’.

Society as we have it is made oup of rules and norms of behaviour, the norms keep evolving as society grows hopefully, otherwise it stagnates like Greece and Rome did. With that evolving different rule-sets are also created over time and by the reaction of that society to what has occurred.

Some rules are pro-active that are done to benefit (hopefully) society as a whole but most are re-active rules because something that couldn’t or wouldn’t (because of norms, culture, technology, whatever) occur now raises its head.

And yes the sheeple need security in having things spelt out for them, though that doesn’t mean there are no misunderstandings, far from it. In fact misunderstandings sometimes allow new and more apt, and equitable, rules to be developed.

ignorance of the rules is no defence, but that only works if the rules are made viewable. Even if they are only viewable in some dim dark basement with the key held in a public servants old sock, they are still available to be read.

In this example the card had no rules attached to it as far as I can see, so from an ethical point there was no wrong committed.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 But maybe the "crowd" was right

Saw that, did a facepalm, face and hand now hurts, and replied 😉

Reading through the Updates on that blogpost I laughed when he thought it had been hacked and I think it is one of those thought experiments that evolved into a life of its own in reality.

My personal opinion is that Odio should of just placed the money he ‘skimmed’ back onto the original card to give back into the community, after buying himself a coffee for under $3 of course.

Might use this in a class I run at Uni on Information Technology Ethics and the Law. Seems like a good and apt case study.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 But maybe the "crowd" was right

Might use this in a class I run at Uni on Information Technology Ethics and the Law. Seems like a good and apt case study.

Yes, that’s why I have made comments here. I think developing a sharable economy is a great thing, but I also believe there are hurdles to overcome. There are reasons Utopian experiments tend not to last.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 But maybe the "crowd" was right

Also, written or un-written, peer pressure will only get you so far. Most societies need a method of enforcement for their rules to have a practical existence.

Yes, I am really interested in how all of this will play out. I’d like to think a group of people can get along peacefully and fairly without requiring a lot of rules and structure, but on the other hand, if you have a few people who choose to be disruptive or exploitative, the whole process can break down.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: But maybe the "crowd" was right...maybe not

It is patently unreasonable to hold someone to an an “unstated” understanding. Either state it, or put up with interlopers.

It is interesting as communities (both on and offline) evolve to see to what extent etiquette and the like are codified. Restaurants start to put up dress codes. Online groups jump on newbies and tell them what they can or can’t do and sometimes put up a list of rules for participation.

Then, of course, you have a group of people intentionally disobey the rules to make a statement. And if they disobey, others then try to exclude them or punish them.

If the argument is that as long as you didn’t state the rules, we can do what we want, we will end up with more rules. Maybe we can’t depend on common sense to guide us.

A Guy says:

Re: Re:

Maybe the “charitable donation” was also contrived as a good way to shut it down once the viral promotion was over.

Can you think of a better way to have a “villain” that isn’t actually a villain? The community feels “cheated” enough to offend them so it feels “right” to shut it down, but it still leaves a warm and fuzzy feeling when they think about the charity angle.

Maybe it’s just my tinfoil hat though?… who knows

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Stark did put restrictions on the use of the card

We’ve been debating something that is actually incorrect. Stark did ask people not to abuse the card.

Broadcasting Mobile Currency : Jonathan Stark: “I only put $30 on the card, so it?s first come, first served. I?m also pretty sure that this card image will only work in the U.S., but feel free to try it elsewhere. My only requests are:

* Please limit your purchase to around $3.00 so more people can try it.
* Ping on Twitter to let me know how it went.”

Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

All I can say is...

Tragedy of the commons


But I would like to try a an experiment in which I did something like this with a common card for groceries or gas.

It would go something like this. “Add if you can and take if you need.”

My opinion is that more would take than give because it would be like what we face in America with more than 50% of the people getting more back in taxes than they paid in. (Why should anyone get back $6560.97 in a refund when they only paid $159.27 in taxes? True story)

But I would really like to see what happens with something like that. Something that the community would try to enforce with a sound reasonableness towards truly working to be a help to those that could be helped.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

The Internet and the New Urbanism

Jane Jacobs, the great scholar of urbanism, once observed that “no one can keep open house in a city.” If you serve food to anyone who come to your house, the whole floating population of beggars will descend on you. To my knowledge, Father Divine probably came closest to keeping open house, and that was in the context of being a revolutionary leader, who got arrested at regular intervals.


If you maintain a flood of beggars around your house, the authorities may very well suspect you of maintaining your own private army, to who knows what ends. (In _The Name of the Rose_, Umberto Eco offers an interesting discussion of the radical Franciscan fringe movements of the early fourteenth century, which were oddly similar to what went on with Father Divine.)

At any rate, according to Jacobs, city living is about living with people you don’t know. You have to assume that some of them are villains. City living’s watchword is “trust, but verify,” and a city is to be understood in terms of the mechanisms for doing that. If you look at medieval Italian architecture, and further, if you look at the urban pallazi which represent civic-ness in its highest form, the world of Petrarch and Boccaccio and Leonardo Da Vinci and Lorenzo Il Magnifico, you will note that the ground-floor windows all have elaborate barred gratings, or there may simply be no windows at or near ground level. A house like that was designed as its own fortress. The most important families would have their pallazi surrounding the central market place, and they could go out into the square to be civic, with the option of retreating into their houses if there was trouble. There were periodic riots and small wars, which were likely to be along Guelph-Ghibelline lines, that is to say, between the adherents of the Pope and the German Emperor (whose interest eventually passed to the kings of Arragon, and then Spain). The ongoing state of localized cold war combined with an extraordinary intellectual ferment. There were certain precautions. You could talk with someone, and learn from him, but you had your own wineskin to drink from, and you might not want to drink from his wineskin for fear that he had introduced deadly nightshade into the drink. This was, after all, the age of the Borgias as well.

You can create a perfect city on the internet, but you cannot create a small town on the internet. A town is something entirely different. Jonathan Stark got into difficulties because he was trying to do a town thing on the internet.

Of course, many an Italian nobleman got the best of both worlds. He his pallazo in Rome or Florence, and he also had his summer house, in a little town somewhere up in the Apennines.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: The Internet and the New Urbanism

Fascinating stuff. In a small town, you are more likely (or at least used to be more likely) to leave your house and your care unlocked. It worked because everyone knew everyone. So the trade-off was safety in exchange for lack of anonymity. I didn’t fully appreciate it until I got older and compared my life in small towns versus living in moderate-sized cities.

I’m not big on having everyone watching everything I’m doing (think neighborhood watch), but on the other hand, that is how to maintain safety in one’s living environment.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Re: The Internet and the New Urbanism

Within reason, you can go out of your house in the small town, get in your car, and drive out of the mountains, down to the big city on the plain. Your townsmen are not going to go to the trouble of tailing you all that distance, and they are unlikely to have any very exact idea of what you do in the city. Even if you should answer questions with moderate truthfulness, their response will probably be disinterest. The affairs of the city are too remote from those of the town to make sense in the town.

For example, I live in a small college town, but I do not live in the “professor district.” I would be very surprised if the people around the block from me were to ask my views about patents. Patents are simply not within their conceptual frame. What I am locally famous for is walking. In this town, twenty-year-old students walk, of course, but adults do not walk, with only a handful of exceptions. The place is fairly hilly, and walking implies a good deal of climbing fifty or a hundred feet.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The Internet and the New Urbanism

No, people don’t necessarily try to keep track of everything you do. If they establish it isn’t of interest to them and not a threat to them, they won’t bother. But they will likely monitor when you come and go so they can spot something unusual. That’s good for safety. They might also be interested if you have a porn collection which might be of interest as an indication of your trustworthiness. They want/need to know some things and discount others. And the gossip mill will process whatever is available about whoever happens to be within the relevant community.

However, I don’t like Facebook’s attempt to do this online. My concern is that my information can also be used for bad purposes. Some of us don’t, for example, want to publish our comings and goings because that can be useful for thieves.

Damin (user link) says:

what's not mentioned in this article

Sam Odio’s brother, Daniel Odio, was putting the same amount of money into the card that Sam was taking out. This was in part to drum up support for some app competition Daniel was sponsoring. However this was only later revealed after they both pretended to not know what was happening with the wild swings in the card’s balance.

They co-opted the use of Jonathan’s Card purely for self promotion with no net benefit to Jonathan’s Card. They pretended to show goodwill by putting funds in, then later reveal they took the same funds out. Then with Sam openly revealing his methodology under the very baiting statement that you can buy an iPad doing what he did, Starbucks had no choice but to shut the card down. If anything, their actions were probably the primary reason to suspend the card.

People probably expected some would use the card for self gain, but to openly admit they were gaming the experiment, they only reveal themselves to be ethically shady, despite the moral intention of donating the cards to charity. Even then, they lose a bit of the moral high ground. If they wanted to donate the funds to the charity, they could have done so without the fanfare. But instead they used this system to bring attention and promotion to themselves. The charity at this point only seems to benefit secondarily from their actions.

Now here is the kicker, Sam Odio’s eBay account has recently been suspended in the past few days and his auction is no longer valid. Currently there is no way to auction the gift cards, or to know if they will follow up with the promise to donate funds to the charity of their choice. They are now stuck with $625 dollars worth of Starbucks unless they can figure out how to sell or auction off those cards for at least face value.

Perhaps it is karma or cosmic retribution playing its hand, the Odio brother’s actions got Jonathan’s Card suspended, and the fruits of their actions causes eBay to suspend Sam’s account.

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