'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.