Twitter User Sued by Ex-Employer: Who “Owns” Your Corporate Twitter Account?

So, finally, we have a test-case for an individual being sued by his employer for taking his Twitter account with him when he left the business. Noah Kravitz...

So, finally, we have a test-case for an individual being sued by his employer for taking his Twitter account with him when he left the business. Noah Kravitz used to work for cell phone news and review site, Phonedog, and had amassed 17,000 Twitter followers to his personal/business Twitter account: @phonedog_Noah.

When he left, he simply changed the account name to @NoahKravitz and continued to Tweet as before, only without so many references to Phonedog. The company is now suing him for doing this and refusing to return the account to them. They value the followers at $2.50 per (£1.60) per month and are demanding the full value of the 8 months Tweeting since he left the business.

It’s a fascinating case that raises certain key questions:

1.  Who owns a Twitter handle?  

Lots of companies require their staff to include the company name in their corporate Twitter handle (though they can, of course, have a personal account too). This might imply some degree of ownership. But when the account itself is largely driven by the personality of the user – rather than their employment status – you could argue that their followers are following them, not the company. It’s a tricky one. From a corporate perspective I advise my clients to make this clear from the outset. Have a clear, concise policy that sets out what happens when a staff member leaves and make sure it’s agreed in advance.

2. What’s the value of a Twitter follower?

I’m intrigued to know how, in this case, they can value a Twitter follower at $2.50 per month. It’s generally accepted now in social media circles that the value of Twitter isn’t in the quantity of followers you have, but the quality. In short: you’re better to have a great relationship with one very influential follower (who re-tweets you regularly) than to have a distant relationship with 10k followers, of which 10-20 people may RT each tweet. On this basis I would suggest that: (a) valuing a Twitter following requires some analysis of the reach and resonance of tweets sent, as well as the influence of the most active followers; and (b) the real value of the following may well be tied to the personality of the person who has attracted the followers. Ask yourself, would people follow @stephenfry or @chrisbrogan if their tweets were written by someone else?

3. Is Twitter a business or social medium?

While many businesses are using Twitter to share news and information without much personality, the most successful Twitterers are those who integrate interest and value with an engaging personality. As a business, if your staff are Account Managers, Engineers, Accountants etc. but are also communicators, capable of building up their own Twitter followings and developing strongly personal communication channels through which they can build their professional profile and add value to the business – surely that’s a good thing for you? But when they leave your employment, can you expect to keep that value?  If we accept that it’s generated partly by their skill and personality and partly by your willingness to allow them the time, during working hours, to develop their social media presence, it’s a tricky question.

For this latter point, I’m a strong believer that social media is an opportunity for good communicators to develop their personal value.   As such I don’t believe a business should retain rights over someone’s social media presence. But, like all these things, you really need to agree this in your employment contract.

Where’s this all going? Well, I think it’s just a glimpse of things to come. Who owns your Facebook Page? Who owns your LinkedIn Group? I see a bright future for employment lawyers and much hand-wringing for employers struggling to understand the implications of social media within their companies.

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  1. Alasdair Murray Reply

    Surely if anyone in the world can access ant Twitter accounts list of followers there can be no such thing as ownership of that list – unless it it a protected account of course. The guy being sued could have just created a new account and cherry picked the Phonedog account’s followers list, but instead, presumably just to save time rather than with any underhand motive, he simply tweaked the account name and carried on as normal. What’s the crime in that?   As I say, it’s information that’s in the public domain. I could follow all of Phonedog’s followers and the people it follows if I so choose. Would they charge me £2.50 a month for each for the privilege?

    1. Twitter Reply

      You’re misunderstanding Twitter. You can’t control who follows you. They come to you. It’s not like Facebook where you can just add people. 17k followers is difficult to amass so it definitely has some kind of value.

  2. Luke Brynley-Jones Reply

    Thanks for your input Alastair. It’s the list of followers they’re fighting over – and it’s not easy to amass 17k followers – so there’s definitely a value to owning the list. I’d seriously question the value their ascribing to it though, and their method of calculation. If you just want numbers you can buy Twitter accounts with 10k followers on ebay for a few hundred pounds.

  3. Arnaud DUMASdeRAULY Reply

    There’s an aspect that isn’t yet covered: how will this employee’s “audience” take the fact that Phonedog is sueing him? This sounds pretty counter-productive to me, at least for Phonedog’s company and brand image. 
    On the other hand, this can also be used a way to promote Phonedog because of the extra-ordinary nature of the case (first time, hype, etc..).
    It would be interesting to get some input on the increase in visits and possible conversions on Phonedog’s website since it is a news site.

    1. Luke Brynley-Jones Reply

      I agree, it’s likely to be seen as heavy-handed. I notice the disputed Twitter account has attracted 4-5k more followers since the action started, but I don’t expect Phonedog will publish their conversion rates any time soon. 

  4. Charlie Screendrip Reply

    I think it is the company who own the Twitter followers based on employment law (although I doubt contracts have had this baked in yet), however the personal connections are made by the employee and I can see why they feel like they should take that audience with them.

    I don’t think there is an easy resolution here though.

    1. Luke Brynley-Jones Reply

      Yes. Definitely tricky. Interesting question about the strength of the brand vs the personality of the Tweeter.

  5. sfikan Reply

    Thanks for your input Alastair. It’s the enumerate of people they’re operational over – and it’s not wanton to amass 17k masses – so there’s definitely a continuance to owning the itemise.

    buy twitter followers