Social Experiment Hacking

14 Aug
Starbucks Card - PrettyOr, now no one will buy this Yuppie coffee.

For the last few days, there’s been much ado is social media circles about Jonathan’s Card, a social experiment that was basically a take a penny, leave a penny bowl writ large.

Backstory: Jonathan Stark loaded money on his Starbucks card (some sources say $65, some $100, some $300) and then posted its barcode on the internet, informing people that they were free to use the card to buy drinks and to put more money on the card.  He wanted to see how people would behave when there was no accounting for their behavior.  Would all the money be gone in 5 minutes or would it grow and last and become some sort of big, feel good thing.  Kind of like “If I Could Buy the World a Coke”, but with Starbucks.

Starbucks Rules!  by Paddy's D90s

Photo credit to Paddy's D90s

The forces of good won out and Jonathan’s Card became a smashing success.  All told, people loaded over $8,700 on it, spending most of it.  Generally, the balance continued to grow.

But, of course something that good, and cool, and headline grabbing couldn’t last all that long.  Enter Sam Odio, a general self-promoter and, according to Mashable, “serial entrepreneur”.  Instead of using Jonathan’s Card to buy himself a drink, Sam transferred $625 off of it to his own Starbucks card and listed in on eBay, writing a blog post called “How to use Jonathan’s card to buy yourself an iPad”.  (My initial reaction to this: Sam is an ass.)  Sam’s blog post went on to justify that, while he could use the money to buy an iPad, he was actually going to donate it to Save the Children.

Sam justified his actions by saying that Jonathan’s Card was “yuppies buying yuppies coffees”.  But you know what?  I’m a yuppie (young – check, urban – check, professional – check), and there’s nothing wrong with you buying me coffee.  Sure, it’s not going to save the world, but it’s not going to hurt it either; all it will do is brighten my day a bit – and that’s not a bad thing.

Jonathan’s blog now features a pretty lengthy defense of his actions saying:

Coffee is my life by Cali4beach

Photo credit to Cali4beach

I do believe that we make hard choices every day, and by buying coffee we’re inherently making a choice not to spend that money on other causes. My goal in this experiment was to highlight the nature of that hard choice.

I guess, sure.  But really, he wasn’t making a choice to spend his own money on Save the Children.  He was taking the money that other people had chosen to spend on coffee, justifying his action by saying that his choice was a more correct choice than theirs.  (My reaction: yep, he’s an ass.)

So, what happened in the end of all this?  (Other than yuppies buying yuppies coffee?)  Sam has a $500 Starbucks card list on eBay.  Current the bid is $510.  You can go buy it if you want.

Friends Don't Let Friends Drink Starbucks by Holster

Maybe Sam saw this grafitti? Photo credit to Holster

Who were the big winners in all this?  Both Jonathan and Sam – they got all of the press and web traffic that they could want.  (And I’m pretty sure that’s what they both wanted the whole time.)  They both got their 15 minutes of web fame and drew attention to the projects/start-ups on which they’re currently working.  Starbucks won, because they got all this free press, and over $8,700.  And Save the Children may win, too – if Sam really follows through on making the donation.

Who lost?  Me.  Nobody bought this yuppie coffee.  Sad…

(I know that this post wasn’t as full of links as they normally, but I really didn’t want to feed into Sam’s web traffic spike.  If you’re interested to read more about this, or want to get the links to Jonathan and Sam’s sites, visit Mashable’s “Starbucks Card Social Experiment Hacked by Entrepreneur”.)

Questions of the day: Is Sam an ass?  What’s wrong with yuppies buying yuppies coffee?  Do you want to buy me coffee.  (Please?)

MaggieCakes is a blog about social media, marketing, culture, and what’s new on the internet written by me, Maggie O’Toole.  Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at

5 Responses to “Social Experiment Hacking”

  1. georgettesullins August 14, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Did you make up that name, Sam Odio? Something tells me you didn’t. His name speaks for itself. Go to and check out odious in four more languages: Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. Another interesting post.

    • Maggie O'Toole August 14, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

      Haha. No I didn’t make it up. It is a very fitting name. Kind of like Dolores Umbridge. He’s make a great Harry Potter character. (And he’d totally be in Slytherin.)

  2. hcn207 August 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    I think in a sense, Sam is definitely an ass. Although he has good intent, I’m under the impression that he presumes his course of action provides more benefit to the world than Jonathan’s. I won’t argue whether that is the case or not, but the fact remains that he disrupted something I’d consider to be a great source of promotion of good-will.

    There are an infinite numbers of ways to do good in the world, and many different levels of altruism exists. There are those who subscribe and adhere to stringent policies of philanthropy and volunteerism, but I don’t think we hold everyone to those same standards. Rather, let people do whatever is within their own power and preference to contribute to society. If it’s spending two years in the Peace Corps, great. If it’s spending five dollars to buy somebody else a drink, so be it. Both are valid options among of a myriad of choices. That’s not to say that I don’t think people should take some time to truly assess their own capabilities in terms of being charitable, but at the same time, I understand that life beckons and is demanding.

    I used to buy drinks for the person standing behind in line on occasion. Certainly, it’s a small gesture. But we never know how long the line of dominoes extends. Do what we can and hope for the best. 🙂

    • Emily from wild & grace August 14, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

      Dear Maggie, I enjoy reading your blogs for their delicious combination of humour, heart and information ‘framed in pink spots’. This article (which i must admit to scanning very quickly) has a similar flavour to a idea housed in a workshop for women ‘wild & grace’ just co-ordinated I chose to set the price for the day as ‘pay what you feel the day is worth’. I was interested in the question of who should set a value on something? I was interested in people coming because they felt drawn to it, and it being accessible to everyone (regardless of their financial situation). I also wonder does money change value depending on how much you do or don’t have at your disposal. After a week of ‘slow bookings’ i lost faith and set an ‘unmovable’ price whilst trying to reflect the original concept by making it affordable. I do wish I persevered and gave people their individual anonymous envelope to insert their monies (or not?) into. I was also worried that the undefined price question could dominate what was intended to be a relaxing creative soulful day for the workshop participants. I’d be interested to know if there is a term for this concept of economics or if other people has persisted and had affirming results. Thanks Maggie

    • Maggie O'Toole August 14, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

      I get what you’re saying. Whether you’re bringing good in a big way or a small way, what counts is that you’re bringing good. As Sam had his last start-up bought by Facebook, I’m guessing he’s not short for cash. If he had wanted to donate $500 to Save the Children, he could have done it himself. Jonathan’s Card wasn’t hurting anyone. In fact, it was making a lot of people happy, albeit in a small way.

      Good for you for buying drinks for people. I wish I had been behind you in line!

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