Demolishing the Tragedy of the Commons using new technology

Does the Internet Make Us More Altruistic?
[Via Big Think]

Over the past week, Jonathan’s Card became one of the more fascinating online social experiments ever conducted in full public view. The basic premise was simple – a single individual (Jonathan Stark) posted the details of his Starbucks loyalty card online, loaded it up with $30, and then encouraged people across the country to use the money on the card as needed and then “pay it forward” to other Starbucks users after using this card. The balance of the card fluctuated widely – usually between $0 and $50 – before Starbucks finally shut it down Friday night after a user claimed to have hacked the card. While the basic premise of Jonathan’s Card was simple, the bigger idea is actually more complex: Does the Internet make us more altruistic?


What a cool experiment! People could buy coffee off of the card and then add money to it to allow others to use it.

Sure, some people just abused it and took all the money but others simply added some more back. It appears that the experiment would have kept going indefinitely except for worries about hacking.

Remember the scene from It’s a wonderful Life when there is a run on the bank? Jimmy Stewart has only a handful of money, not enough to pay everyone off but asks them to take only what they can. The first guy asks for everything he is owed and takes it.

But the next only takes the minimum they need and so do many of the rest, so that by the end of the day, there is still a little money left.

In the Tragedy of the Commons, those that abuse the commons are not held to any public measure of retribution while those that support the commons are not given an public support.

But a system like this almost looks self-supporting. The overall public exposure of both sides, especially being able to show the good one did, might actually support such a card in perpetuity.

Compare this with Panera’s “Pay what you want” system. Just suggested prices. Sure, some people paid nothing but some people actually paid much more than the regular price. It was quite a success.

Maybe we will see some more of these experiments?