THE BLOG
08/15/2011 02:38 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2011

Pay It Forward... With Coffee

The adrenaline rush I feel right now is only partly due to the cup of coffee I just consumed. Today, I was lucky enough to score a free drink using Jonathan's Card. Jonathan Stark began a social experiment in which he uploaded his Starbucks card online so anyone could download the bar code and use it to buy Starbucks products. The only requirement is that you need to scan the barcode when there is still money left on the card. Although you're not required to add money, the experiment encourages you to 'pay it forward.'

When I first heard about Jonathan's Card, I thought it might be a scam. However, I was still curious and went on to read a couple articles that suggested the experiment might have legitimacy. As I waited in line for my coffee, I refreshed the website on my smartphone which gave me real-time updates with the card's balance -- I watched as $80 dropped to $0 in two seconds. Feeling discouraged, I approached the counter and waited for the cashier to scan the bar code. She announced that my drink was free. As I walked out of the store, free coffee in hand, a little bit of my faith in humanity was restored. Although I'm just talking about 12 oz. of coffee, I'm fascinated by the bigger idea; I wanted to put money back on the card so that other people could experience the same adrenaline rush (minus the coffee). I continue to smile in amazement that such a small act of kindness can brighten up someone's day and inspire him or her to brighten up someone else's.

I have learned, however, that there are no free cups of coffee. When I went online to figure out how I could add money to the card, I came across an article reporting that Starbucks had terminated Jonathan's Card. Although Starbucks initially encouraged the experiment -- free advertising is always a plus -- it was causing too many problems. Someone allegedly abused the gift card and wrote a program to transfer hundreds of dollars from Jonathan's Card to his own card. Many people also questioned Jonathan's motives behind designing this experiment. In retrospect, I'm surprised the experiment wasn't shut down during the first week.

I wish that more experiments like Jonathan's Card could go viral, but unfortunately someone will always find a way to beat the system. Although I want to believe that genuine acts of kindness will not get exploited, the outcome of this experiment made me question such a possibility. I have been critiqued for readily giving people the benefit of the doubt, and I guess I was guilty of doing the same in this instance. Regardless of those who were motivated by greed, I have a lot of respect for the people who kept this experiment going since July 14. Even amidst a greedy crowd, there will always be a handful of right-thinking people with a desire to give back.