Jonathan's Card

How often does a social sharing experiment manage to combine mobile payments, a slightly geeky mobile app consultant and the idea of “paying it forward” using random acts of kindness?  Not often, but that’s exactly what’s happening with Jonathan’s Card, an idea started by Jonathan Stark to investigate replacing hard cash with a digital photo.

Having become a regular user of Starbucks mobile payment app for iPhone, Stark (Vice President of Application Architecture at Mobiquity) hit upon a problem when he bought a new Nexus S.  He installed the newly released app for Android but found that it deleted the app from his iPhone.

Hoping to avoid the daily trauma of deciding which phone to take out with him, he tried taking a picture of the payment screen on his iPhone and e-mailing it to his Nexus S.  The next day, he bought a cup of coffee using nothing more than a digital photo of the payment screen.  In his own words, the “ramifications of this sorta blew (his) mind”.

Keen to explore the idea of photographs as currency a little further, Jonathan decided to run a little experiment.  He loaded his Starbucks card with $30 and posted a picture of it online, inviting anyone who saw it to have a go themselves.

The rules were simple.  Anyone could buy a cup of coffee using the picture as their payment method.  Stark asked people to limit their purchases to around $3 to maximise the number of people who could take part and suggested that people could tweet him updates of how they got on.

That turned out to be just the beginning.  Having replenished the original amount by $50 to give his “friends on the west coast” a chance to take part, the card balance increased all on its own.  Having ruled out hackers on his credit card, Jonathan realised that anyone can reload the card at simply by entering the card number in the photo.

From there, it went viral having been picked up by Tech Crunch and now CNN.  An experiment in social sharing experiment turned into one on “paying it forward”.  The card now has its own twitter feed providing regular updates of the card balance and its own page on Facebook.

At the time of writing, the twitter feed said: “Bummer! I’m empty as of Aug 9th at 5.39am EDT – Can you spare a coffee?” but there’s no need to fear that the end is in sight.  This tweet has appeared many times before, prompting new participants to deposit some funds.  By Monday afternoon, $3,651 had been spent on the card and at least 177 people had donated money.

The project is unconnected to Starbucks, but they’re watching with interest, telling CNN, “We think Jonathan’s project is really interesting and are flattered he chose Starbucks for his social experiment.  We’re curious to see how his project continues to evolve.”  So too, are the everyday people who’ve taken part.  They’re filling forums with their own stories of how random acts of kindness have touched their lives and seem genuinely captivated by the experiment.

Perhaps this experiment is just the kick start that’s required to see mobile payments really take off in the western world. As we’ve written about before, the UK and US both lag far behind in the use of mobile wallets.  While 50% of the Kenyan population use them daily, UK experiments remain small-scale, such as Quick Tap which was launched earlier this year by Barclays and Orange.

But with Paypal predicting the end of the mobile wallet within the next four years, it really does seem only a matter of time.  So… mobile payments that can revolutionise asset management, buy a free cup of coffee for a hard up student and help us all be a little bit nicer to each other… coming soon to a smart phone near you.

Click here to see the picture, read the instructions and take part for yourself.

Follow me

Hazel McHugh

Before becoming a freelance writer and digital marketer, Hazel was Group Marketing Manager at Santander.
Follow me