Sure, I majored in the sciences during college but you didn’t have to be a scientist to participate in the social experiment, Jonathan’s Card. What started as a local project amongst friends quickly blew up to become a national barometer of generosity and collective sharing.
The man behind Jonathan’s Card is an mobile app developer, Jonathan Stark. As a way to explore how he could spur sharing of physical goods via digital currency, he made the picture of his Starbucks card available on the internet so anyone can get a free cup of coffee. You just had to download the barcode image onto your mobile phone and scan it during a purchase and voila, free coffee for you! But make sure you check the card’s twitter account for updates on its balance before buying something. If you can afford several cups of venti caramel-mocha-triple-espresso-soy-milk-with-a-quarter-inch-to-spare latte or just feel generous, you can reload however much money you want to give onto the card. In fact, there isn’t a limit to how much you can spend either (although you can’t go below $0 in balance – there isn’t an opportunity to raise the debt ceiling). To visualize the results and create a community of participants, he encouraged users to post information and pictures of their purchases and/or their donation on its Facebook wall as well as on twitter.
And Stark found several surprising results. Contrary to his expectations, the ratio of users to givers wasn’t as skewed as he thought it would be. According to his interview with GOOD, about 50 percent of those who use it give back. Certainly it’s not an indication that half of this country is altruistic do-gooders, but the experiment is a testiment that there are ample people who care about paying it forward. In fact, I scrolled through posts on Jonathan’s Card’s Facebook wall and I discovered that there are numberous stories of strangers doing the little bit that they can to help others in need. Whether it’s buying coffee for the person standing behind you or paying for someone’s parking fee, this experiment seems to work. Although the card’s balance fluctuated more wildly as more people used the card – not unlike the stockmarket’s recent past – it wouldn’t remain at zero for very long. It’s somewhat of a validation that generous people do exist and that such small acts of kindness could blossom into a wide-spread chain reaction.
Stark’s proud experiment would have presumably gone on longer but Starbucks decided to end this little fun due to concerns about fraudulent activity. It seems like one bad apple ruined this experiment. But all is not lost: Many who were emotionally attached to the experiment spawned their own communal cards and Stark’s legacy lives on. Seeing that the end of Jonathan’s Card didn’t completely destroy the spirit of generosity made me wonder if something else was brewing beneath the current social strata? Did Stark ignite a national phenomenon or had there been many unsung heroes who routinely practiced generosity?
I believe Stark had poignantly captured a growing culture within the “sharing economy”. I don’t think Jonathan’s Card represents some capricious national mood but rather a microcosm of what is rapidly taking shape on the horizon. The movement is collaborative consumption, and as a driver of the sharing economy, it’s is poised to disrupt the entire ownership marketplace. TIME magazine is calling collaborative consumtion, “one of the 10 ideas that will change the world.”
What is collaborative consumption, exactly?
According to collaborativeconsumption.com, it is “sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting, and swapping reinvented through network technologies.” Do you have chainsaw just sitting in your garage? Or, does your condo have a spare bedroom that sees infrequent guests? Rent it out! It’s about extending the value of something that is being used infrequently or just sitting idle to someone in need. For example, if someone needs to cut a twisted tree branch off but doesn’t want to invest in a chainsaw just for that occasion, borrowing it from a neighbor would solve that dilemma. That person would save money that s/he could invest it elsewhere.
In the sharing economy, it’s access vs. ownership. Rachel Botsman, the author of, What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, says that access to skills and goods are more important than owning them. Up until recently, the market for renting was disjointed and fragmented; There wasn’t an efficient platform for lenders and borrowers to find each other. Not only that, our social media technologies weren’t mature enough to support such system. Building upon the successes of eBay and social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, we’re now starting to see entrepreneurs tackling this space in earnest. From Freecycle and CouchSurfing (both free) to now, RelayRides, NeighborGoods, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit, more platforms are popping up that easily let anyone start a side-business monetizing un- or underused assets. This peer-to-peer retal market is currently a $26 billion market and the sharing economy is a $110 billion+ market, Botsman explains. The Twin Cities boasts several sharing enterprises like Yards to Garden, CoCo, and Hourcar.
Large companies who had dumped fuel into the hyper-consumerism lifestyle before the recession are adapting to the change in consumer behavior. Car companies such as BMW (DriveNow), Daimler (Car2Go), and Volkswagen (Quicar) have been testing out the car-sharing space – elbowing the Millennials who have flocked early to Zipcar. “People only use their cars about 8 percent of the day,” says Lisa Gansky who wrote The Mesh: Why The Future of Business Is Sharing, “and the rest of that time – 92 percent of the day – someone else could be using them.”
What will become of other big retailers who, pre-recession, demanded us to buy more? Umair Haque, the author of The New Capitalist Manifesto, says that the sharing platforms won’t bankrupt these companies but the new lifestyle will probably eat away at the profit they would be making. For example, when I needed a desk last year but wanted a stylish one from Ikea, where did I go first? Craigslist. The desk itself was about $178 but I bought it (plus an Ikea chair!) from a young couple for $40. You bet I was ecstatic.
Besides being disenchanted by the housing bubble and banking crisis and doing the environment a favor, people are adopting a more collaborative lifestyle because it costs less and it’s less wasteful. If you’re cash-strapped, would you like to spend thousands of dollars on car maintenance? But more importantly, the bigger benefit is social: sharing creates meaningful connections and promotes communities. And the engine that runs collaborative consumption is trust.
Sharing wouldn’t work without trust. And social networking tools have enabled us to develop friendships in real-time and share our lives and content that are meaningful to each of us. Those tools have also tore down barriers to forming new connections and increased transparency in our engagement. It’s only now that we’ve started to take those online relationships offline. In a way, the act of sharing a physical object with another person reaffirms the trust in that relationship; Sharing is a way of spreading your own social capital with others – and it’s the reason that Stark’s social experiment works. Participants who share their monetary capital as well as their social capital find the experience of paying it forward meaningful. “We’re trading basically less stuff for more experiences,” explains Gansky.
As people continue to decouple self-worth from the amount of goods we have accumulated, the culture is creating a new kind of consumers who value meaning over stuff – because let’s face it: when someone pulls the rug from under us and we lose everything, it’s our relationships that we depend on most. And if companies wants to connect with the new consumer, the relationship would have to be based on authenticity, transparency, and community because trust is the new currency.
Since the phrase, “collaborative consumption” percolated down to the cultural masses, it has become somewhat of a buzzword. And the trend is not without some critics. Most of the pessimism come from those concerned about automating trust. Right now, there isn’t a way to “carry” your reputation across platforms although something similar - Facebook Connects – already exists. With Airbnb recently dealing with vandalism and breach of safety, can we really reduce trust, which is inherently a human emotion, down to profiles and rating systems? What problems will we create when we start monetizing trust like TrustCloud is attempting?
Like Airbnb and Jonathan’s Card, all it takes is one bad apple to ruin an entire system. In the case of Jonathan’s Card, the hacker was Sam Odio, who wrote a script that diverted money from Stark’s Starbucks account into another account for his own social experiment. Although the money ultimately would go to a charity, he broke the collective trust and outrage ensued within the community. As I scrolled down the Facebook wall and read the comments, it seemed that the participants were outraged because by diverting money away, Odio didn’t honor the community’s original intention for donating money – even if he meant to benefit a charity. It’s ironic that social media technologies greatly increased transparency but simultaneously obscured it. Perhaps trust can’t ever really be translated into algorithms.
Nevertheless, I think that collaborative consumption is a wonderful idea and hope that the sharing economy continues to grow. By strengthening communities through trust and transparency, we can take collective action and bring about sustainable change. It’s something Good Work Group and I care a lot about. Ideally though, I hope we would still share without any monetary compensation. “Monetizing under-utilized assets” isn’t exactly music to my ears, if you know what I mean. We share because we care and not because we need to commoditize sharing. So, how are you going to pay it forward today?
This is a version of a blog post I wrote for Good Work Group.