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Radical Sharing Works: This Guy Lets the World Use His Starbucks Card for Free (UPDATED)

Some people spend, some people add money, and the balance never dips below zero.

Download this image to your phone, take it to Starbucks and scan it at the cash register: It'll get you a free coffee. It's part of a radical experiment in sharing that's teaching us something about mobile money in the process.

"It's been extremely uplifting," Jonathan Stark tells GOOD. About one month ago, Stark posted the barcode image for his personal Starbucks card online, for anyone to use. Surprisingly, it still has money on it.

Stark was researching broadcast mobile currency—how to transfer money or pay for goods with your phone. He wondered if he could share his Starbucks account just by sharing the image. "I thought, 'that's crazy that I can just show this online and everyone can use it.'"

On July 7th, he loaded $30 onto his card and posted the image for his friends to use. Within hours, the money turned into caffeine and prefab sandwiches. So Stark added another $50 and invited a few more friends to see if they liked paying for things with their phones, creating an informal user experience focus group.

But this time, the money didn't vanish. People started adding money as well as spending it.

And since then, it's become an experiment in anonymous collective sharing. Buying a cup of coffee on the card becomes a special act of participation, and giving back so a stranger can do the same just feels good, and certainly better than the average frappuccino. In that way, the technology Stark created is adding value to the coffee people purchase.

"Overall it's working," he says. Stark created a little program that would check the value on the card and post it to Twitter, so experimenters could see if there is enough for a cup o' joe before heading out to Starbucks. More and more people joined.

As of about 11 a.m. PST today, Stark said that $3,664.24 had passed through the card. "That's all in the last two days," he cautions. But even with the spike in traffic, a few patterns stand out. The most inspiring is the split between donors and diners. At least 179 people have put money on the card, shelling out for 326 coffee drinkers.

"I would have thought the ratio would be more like 10 to 1," drinkers to donors, a pleasantly surprised Stark says. The card is open to the public with free money on it—restricted to use at one chain, but still no-strings-attached—and 50 percent of the people who use it give back. That doesn't quite mean that giving is half as popular as taking, but that when it's as easy as a few clicks, people will part with their mobile cash. That already has philanthropy thinkers taking notice.

"The pattern we're noticing is the balance will keep climbing... and then it drops," Stark says. He doesn't know exactly how or who makes the big buys. But he has noticed there's an equilibrium between generosity and mooching. "I expect it to level out at between $20 and $40," he says.

That's partly because of a few built in incentives that help this experiment along. The card value changes pretty rapidly, so gluttons who try to swipe $100 worth of Rwanda Gakenke Fair Trade Certified coffee grounds will look a little odd if the card can't cover the binge and they need to ditch some items and try again while holding up the line. And the card can't go below zero value, so nobody can run a deficit at anyone else's expense.

As Stark points out, it's "kind of silly to give people who can afford an iPhone a free $5 coffee," but this can lead to something better. "I would like to see something like this around a CVS pharmacy to share money... [something that let's people] donate in an ad hoc way instead of going through large organizations" to help seniors or even fellow pet owners pay for necessities, he suggests. "There's something about it being more direct that feels better."

So far there's no word from Starbucks on what the company thinks of this little hack of their mobile app. "I haven't heard from them yet... but if they did shut off my card, 100 other people could just start [the project up again.]"

That concept really excites him. "If I had one goal it would be for more people to think like this and spawn more projects."

UPDATE: As this story spreads on the internet, there have been a few hitches and developments. The @jonathanscard Twitter account has more than tripled its followers to just about 6,000 since yesterday morning. His site has received over 125,000 page views so far. The card balance fluctuates even more wildly now, as some people people put $50 and $100 credits on it and others draw it down to zero. So, we'll see how smoothly this sharing system functions if growth continues apace.

More people are also tweeting their tales of using the card, like Emmanuel P., who said "just bought lunch for my barista!"

Two app developers have jumped in and made pro bono contributions of their own that may help. One, from Nick Quinlan, is a simple web page that tells you the balance and asks you to donate if it is at zero. The other is a mobile app version of the project called "StarksBucks" by Jason Kneen that he submitted to the Apple App Store for approval. The sharers are planning on making this last.

I'll add future developments in the comments section.

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