Lawsuit over Twitter followers stirs new technology debate

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Ten years ago if a woman had ‘followers’ it was known as ‘stalking’, but now the word has a completely different meaning. The more the followers one has, the more popular they become. It is like being in high school, but mobile and on the run. However, just like in high school, popularity comes with a price.

An American man has discovered that being popular is not all that it seems to be.

In October 2010, Noah Kravitz, a writer at a popular mobile phone site quit his job?after working for nearly fours years. The site has two parts, an e-commerce wing which sells phones and a blog. While working at the company, Noah began writing on Twitter under the name Phoendog_Noah and acquired 17,000 followers. At the time of his departure, the company told him he could make the account personal as long he agreed to ?tweet on their behalf from time to time.? Thereby he began writing as NoahKravitz and his followers rose to 22,000. Everything was moving smoothly, till eight months ago.

In June, the company filed a lawsuit claiming that the account?s followers were a customer list, and that it had invested ?substantial? resources into building it. The company is now seeking damages of $2.50 per user, per month – a total of $370,000.

In a written statement, it said: “The costs and resources invested by Phonedog Media into growing its followers, fans and general brand awareness through social media are substantial and are considered property of Phonedog Media.

“We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands.”


People active on social media are reacting in different views to the news. Pundits say it is arguable as to whether a Twitter followers list is comparable to a mailing list.

?It makes me sick to see that big corporations would do anything for money,? Joshua, a graduation student from the New York University told Arabian Gazette over the phone. ?The mistake Noah made was to trust the sharks and now he is bitten. This is a grave lesson to all of us,? he remarked over the Twitter followers controversy that has taken social media forums by storm.

Sree Sreenivasan, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School and the author of Sree?s Social Media Guide, told New York Times that smart companies let social media blossom where it may.

?It?s a terrible thing to say you have to leave your Twitter followers behind,? he said, talking specifically about media companies that may employ popular Twitter writers. ?It sends a terrible signal to reporters and journalists who care about this, and this will make it less attractive to recruit the next round of people.?

He added that many industries have policies that require sales staff to leave their Rolodexes behind, but these policies were as relevant to social media as Rolodexes are to the modern office. After all, social media accounts are, almost by definition, personal.

He also said that the average Twitter account had less clout than many might think.

?The value of the individual users is very hard to quantify,? he said. ?It?s dangerous to overestimate the value of an account to an organisation and underestimate what it means for an individual.?

Noah Kravitz said he was confused.

?They?re suing me for over a quarter of a million dollars,? he said. ?From where I?m sitting I held up my end of the bargain.?


Social media networks are just that ?Social!? the rules of the game are made up as it progresses.

Henry J. Cittone, a lawyer in New York who litigates intellectual property disputes has told New York Times, that this case will establish precedent in the online world, as it relates to ownership of intellectual property. Apparently Cittone, like his fellow lawyers, has been waiting for such a case as many of his clients are concerned about the ownership of social media accounts.

He added that a particularly important wrinkle is what value the court might set on the worth of one Twitter follower to a media company, saying the price set could affect future cases involving ownership of social media.

?It all hinges on why the account was opened,? he said.

?If it was to communicate with PhoneDog?s customers or build up new customers or prospects, then the account was opened on behalf of PhoneDog, not Mr. Kravitz. An added complexity is that PhoneDog contends Mr. Kravitz was just a contractor in the related partnership/employment case, thus weakening their trade secrets case, unless they can show he was contracted to create the feed.?

Intellectual property solicitor Leigh Ellis was quoted by the BBC as saying that Phonedog are likely to have a strong case as the original account featured the company’s name.

“Let me put it this way, I’d prefer to be on Phonedog’s side,” he told the BBC.

“If you’re a follower, who are you following? You might be following Noah, but it’s PhonedogNoah. There’s a very good argument that the reputation accrued is to the company, rather than the individual.”

Samuel James who works for a web security company in the UK told Arabian Gazette that this is not a simple open and shut case as ?lawyers might think. ?Lawyers are crazy,? he said. ?It is not easy to financially pinpoint the value of a Tweet. How is it possible to determine that each Tweet was valuable in the eyes of the company? The company just woke up after four years and suddenly decided it wants its fans back? This makes no sense. It just looks like a marketing stunt to me.?

A marketing stunt or not, companies are becoming more acute to the free use of the social media networks.


Social network, as the name suggests is ?social?. Companies using the social platforms need to re-valuate the way they do ?social business?.

JetBlue, for example, often answers customer queries via Twitter, although its official policy is not to respond to ?formal complaints? on Twitter.

Many other issues may arise when companies hire popular Twitter users partly because of their social media presence. One such example being, Samsung electronics hired the outspoken blogger Philip Berne to review phones for the company internally.

Berne uses his personal Twitter account but often posts explicitly about Samsung products and his opinions on the phones he has tested. He cleared his Twitter account with the Samsung public relations department and he owns it.

?Their stance was that I am entitled to have and express an opinion, but I am not a Samsung representative, and I should make it clear that any opinions are my own and not those of my employer,? Berne explained.

In general, social media experts advise companies to tread with caution when it comes to account ownership.


People are confused on which side of the fence they belong. Some say that all the work done while employed in a company belongs to the company. Whereas others say that Twitter accounts neither are confidential client lists nor are they trade secrets, thereby they cannot be bought or sold. The more social media intervenes into our daily life, the more complicated it is to separate wireless with reality.

Source: BBC, New York Times

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