Jonathan's Card Goes Smile Card

Aug 17, 2011

Jonathan placed a photo of his Starbucks Cards online, thus allowing anyone to get a coffee for themselves or gift a coffee for someone else.  Would more people take or give?

It was part cool-tech, part socio-cultural and part generosity experiment.  Right away, CNN, Time, Washington Post and dozens of media outlets reported it.  Several thousand dollars were filled on it, and almost always, it was taken up right away.  (A Twitter feed gave live update on the amount.)  Soon, some folks figured out a way to buy themselves gift-cards from the extra amount.  Conspiracy theories started -- Jonathan works for Mobiquity, which had Starbucks as one of its clients.  One fellow publicly wrote an automatic script that let him scrape $625 in 5 hours at a Starbucks; many were furious and some even tried to report him to the FBI for stealing, although he put that card on eBay to donate the proceeds to Save the Children.  Jonathan himself was saddened by all the negativity around the campaign.  StarBucks shut down the card last Friday.

When I first heard about this, early on in the experiment, my knee-jerk reaction was to cheer for it!  The more experiments, the better.  But it seemed like it would be easy-come easy-go.  About 500 people donated $8,700; on Twitter, there's 14K followers and about 9K on FaceBook.  Lots of PR was generated.  Unfortunately, the moral of the story was: generosity failed.  Or worse yet: one guy took it down.

That generosity failed and is fickle enough to be brought down by the actions of one cynical person is a lazy conclusion.  As much as I would root for Jonathan's Card to succeed, I don't classify it as a deep experiment in generosity.  It was more curiosity, more fun, than it ever was transformative -- and it just skimmed the surface.  Without much of a relationship between recipient and the giver, or a design for inner reflection, it simply couldn’t run that deep.  In general, Clicktivism has its merits, but it can be no satyagraha.

When Starbucks shut down the card, Jonathan posted a consolation page that championed the spirit of small pay-it-forward acts of generosity.  Essentially, Jonathan's Card went the direction of Smile Cards.  But with Smile Cards, it started with 100 cards and it valued a slow revolution over the media fast-track.  Instead of relying on the infrastructure of a corporation, the emphasis was on peer-to-peer connection, using real-world stories as the medium, and a design for inner transformation.  Creating a system like this takes a lot more time, and even more effort -- but today, one million Smile Cards have been shipped by volunteers, to 145 countries, mostly in quantities of 10 cards.  Tens of thousands of stories are shared and reshared by millions of site visitors.  It ended up scaling, but that’s not what makes it successful. When something manages to naturally align with the powerful attraction of a fundamental human generosity, that kind of experiment simply cannot fail.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."