Is your Twitter account really your own?

Twitter Follower Mosaic

Twitter Follower Mosaic by Joe Lazarus (joelaz)

The blurred lines between ‘work’ and ‘home’ social media use once again hit the news this week after a US company sued an ex-employee for keeping the Twitter followers he attracted while working for it.

Having set up my own social media accounts (Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+) while working for my previous employer, I have more than an academic interest in cases of this kind.

Granted, only the Twitter account was actually set up in work time, and then – initially at least – only to familiarise myself with technology while running a company Twitter account. Nevertheless, I’ve used – and continue to use – each of those channels to promote my work, source stories, make contacts and follow a variety of interests.

I also put a significant amount of time outside work hours into my personal, work-related social media (or, “playing on my phone” as my eldest son puts it).

So there was no doubt in my mind that these personal online profiles would move with me when I changed jobs recently, just as there was no doubt that the @Pharmafocus Twitter account I ran for nearly three years would not.

This latest case, which hinges on Phonedog’s claim for misappropriation of trade secrets by Noah Kravitz, is less clear cut. But it certainly raises a number of interesting points, including whether a damages claim for $2.50 (£1.60) per Twitter follower, per month (which, with Kravitz’s 17,000 strong following at the time, works out at around $370,000) can be justified.

The ownership of personal social media accounts that are used for work (a list that starts with every LinkedIn profile and includes more than a few Twitter accounts) is a grey area and one I’ve yet to see addressed by any of the many social media guidelines available.

So it’ll be interesting to see if the Phonedog case provides any meaningful answers to questions such as:

• Who ‘owns’ your Twitter followers and, for the litigiously-minded, what is their value? In fact, does valuing followers by their number have any meaning, or is the real value provided either in knowing who these followers are, or by the Twitter account owner who runs an account worth following?

• Can you even have a personal set of business contacts on Twitter in the form of followers?

• Who owns your Twitter account? An account with a company’s name, as with Kravitz’s @Phonedog_Noah account (now renamed @noahkravitz), is already a slightly unwieldy halfway house between company and individual use. In the case of the BBC’s political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg (then @BBCLauraK), her move to ITV merely prompted an account name change to @ITVLauraK … end of story.

Judging by the legal experts contacted by journalists for comment on the Phonedog case, few of these issues can easily be answered.


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