27 November 2011

Who owns your Twitter followers? Who are they really following?

Twitter followersA man is being taken to court by his ex-employers in America for keeping the Twitter followers that he accumulated while working for them. This is not the first time that arguments over the ownership of social media contacts have ended up in the courts.

Noel Kravitz ran a Twitter account for the US mobile news site Phonedog and built up a list of more than 17,000 followers while he worked for them. When he left he took his account with him, changing his name from @Phonedog_Noah to the more anonymous @noahkravitz.

Since then there has been a breakdown in the relationship between Kravitz and his ex-employer. PhoneDog are arguing that the Twitter account is part of a wider investment that they have made in their brand awareness. They claim that the account amounts to a “customer list” and are attempting to sue Kravitz for $2.50 per follower per month for an eight month period – that’s a whopping $340k.

This does beg the question of whether a company has the right to claim ownership of an employee’s social media account.  For many people, the idea that your employer can jump upon the networks that you might have built up on Twitter or LinkedIn is pretty unthinkable – after all, most profiles contain a mixture of colleagues and friends built up throughout an entire career. Do you have to hand them over just because some of them may have been accumulated on company time?

A sense of déjà vu

A similar case concerning social media ownership was seen in the UK courts in 2008. Consulting company Hays forced an ex-employee to hand over details of contacts that had been built up in a LinkedIn account while he worked for them. Hays alleged that the employee had used his LinkedIn network to establish a rival agency which he’s set up a few weeks before leaving.

The defence was pretty similar in this case as it was argued that Hays had encouraged their employees to use social networking tools. Once these contacts were in the public domain they were free for him to use. The UK courts did not agree and the employee was forced to disclose any details of business dealings with his LinkedIn contacts.

Perhaps much of this rests on why people were following the account. Companies find it very difficult to engage with social media, which depends on a more personalised approach rather than the impersonal feel of a corporate identity. A strong personality is needed to make a go of social media, so individual employees are often nominated to front a company’s social presence and humanise it.

Kravitz’s tweets were a perfect example of how the personal and professional can mesh together in social media. Tweets that were relevant to PhoneDog were mixed in with banter and trivial personal details. People may have been following Noah, but given that he was tweeting under the name of “PhoneDog_Noah” it is just as likely that they were following the company. This may leave the way open for PhoneDog to claim that the reputation in the account has accrued to the company rather than Kravitz.

Adjusting to new tools and technologies

This strikes me as part of a wider process of defining the legal and behavioral norms around emerging tools. It takes a while for people and business to adjust to the new codes of conduct and some of it has to be played out in the courts. The spread of email into the workplace has created a number of casualties through careless words written without care for how quickly they can spread. The growth of blogging has also created difficulties for employees who did not realise that their spare time musings could have an impact on their jobs.

PhoneDog have valued Kraavtiz’s contact list at around half a million dollars a year. This may be a fanciful notion, but it’s clear that an influential social media presence does have some intrinsic value and the ownership if this can be poorly understood. Ultimately we will need to develop more specific agreements with employers over ownership of accounts and content in the future.

Filed under Strategy.