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This article was published on December 27, 2011

Can you ‘own’ your Twitter followers? One blog seems to think so.

Can you ‘own’ your Twitter followers? One blog seems to think so.
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

Did you ever wonder how much your Twitter account is worth? Services like Klout certainly attempt to define the value of social media in terms of influence, but according to the blog PhoneDog, one Twitter follower is worth exactly $2.50.

The story emerged early in November when details of a double-lawsuit revolving around a blog and a Twitter account were made public. In a nutshell, PhoneDog parted ways with its former editor-in-chief, Noah Kravitz in October 2010. In June 2011, he sued the company, saying that they were in breach of contract for not paying him his share of  the site’s gross advertising revenue.

Possibly in a knee-jerk reaction, one month later, PhoneDog filed a lawsuit that has been the topic of much debate for the past couple of days. The tech blog is suing Kravitz for ownership of a Twitter account which at the time had 17,000 followers.

According to Venture Beat, Kravitz is accused of “misappropriation of trade secrets,” “intentional interference with prospective economic advantage,” “negligent interference with prospective economic advantage” and “conversion.”

The Twitter account, originally opened under the name Phonedog_Noah, was left to Kravitz on the condition that he would occasionally tweet on PhoneDog’s behalf, but he was able to rename the account, removing any trace of the company’s name. PhoneDog has since decided that they’re not giving up the account without a fight.

How much is one follower worth?

In an attempt to place a monetary value on the account, PhoneDog has decided that one follower is worth $2.50, so you’d think that would put the value of the Twitter account at $42,500. Nope. PhoneDog has decided that is the value of just one month, and having used the account for 8 months, it puts the value of the Twitter account at $340,000, an amount Kravitz would pay to them if they were to win the lawsuit.

PhoneDog’s valuation seems as arbitrary as gimmicky sites like Tweetvalue, which tell you how much a Twitter account is worth. (According to Tweetvalue, by the way, Kravitz’s Twitter account is worth $4,831.)

The value of a Twitter account based on follower count could be proof that PhoneDog really doesn’t have its finger on the pulse of social media, and seems to be grasping at straws in an attempt to get out of paying up what Kravitz claims they owe him.

Placing the exact same value on each and every follower is akin to placing the same value on the iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab. In theory, they’re the same thing. Sure they’re both tablets, but when you take a closer look, you’ll find they are very different. Twitter followers don’t interact with the accounts they follow in the same way. Some followers might hang on every word you say, while others don’t even realize they’re following you.

Breaking down the followers of any Twitter account, you’ll find a fair share of bots, dormant accounts, or accounts that follow thousands of users, making it highly unlikely that they ever see your tweets in the first place.

Another point that pokes holes into PhoneDog’s flawed case is that it’s impossible to determine what exactly makes a user click the follow button.

Does PhoneDog have a case?

Let’s set aside PhoneDog’s bizarre valuation method for a minute. Let’s say that they determined the value of the account based on user interaction. They might have looked at retweets and replies, maybe compared the rate at which Kravtiz’s follower account increased after he left the company, compared to the rate when he was still with PhoneDog. Let’s say that there really was some logical way to place a monetary value on a Twitter account. Would they be justified in suing Kravitz for said amount?

It’s also worth mentioning that since June, Kravitz’s follower count has increased by almost 2,500 followers, in all irony, quite possibly in part due to the buzz created by PhoneDog’s lawsuit.

The New York Times compares PhoneDog’s case to a company requiring “sales staff to leave their Rolodexes behind,” a practice that made perfect sense in the past, but one that is impossible to control now. How does a company ensure that information, like a contact list, saved in the cloud is actually relinquished?

The technology in use today has made it harder than ever to make sure that company-owned intellectual property stays right where it should, but PhoneDog has opened up a whole new can of worms. Its lawsuit effectively says that a Twitter account, and by extension its followers, are intellectual property.

In a statement to the New York Times, PhoneDog cites costs incurred by the company when investing in their social media profile, which according to the company, clearly includes personal blogger accounts. But how do you assign a monetary value to the use of a free service?

While it’s rare to find a blogger using anything other than their name or initials in their Twitter handle, it’s more common in mainstream media. Some CNN and Al Jazeera journalists append their usernames with AJA or CNN, but there certainly doesn’t seem to be a rule.

Just last week, we looked at a study which, unsurprisingly, found that people prefer to follow personal journalist accounts over an organization’s official account.

One of the main reasons could be access to on the ground and immediate reporting. But more relevant to Kravitz’s case, it’s probably that a personal Twitter account brings a bit of personality with it. It’s practically impossible not to inject a Twitter account with a little bit of your own personality, even if it is an official account.

Additionally, users are more likely to follow journalists over other Twitter users, as our own Paul Sawers points out, because they are trained to suss out the truth. They fact-check, and the onus is certainly on them to ensure that the information they share is accurate.

This brings us back to the final point we made when asking how do you determine the value of one follower – and that is – what makes a Twitter user hit that follow button?

Is it the information that Kravitz was able to provide solely due to his position at PhoneDog? Or was it because of the way that Kravitz himself personally relayed that information?

Setting a precedent

The outcome of this case will certainly set a precedent. Journalism as a whole is a constantly changing beast, and the introduction of tools like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ have revolutionized the way in which an audience is able to interact with its reporters.

It’s doubtful whether or not journalists will invest as much time and effort into a Twitter account that bears their own names knowing that if they leave their jobs, they leave that Twitter account behind. Will they bother to include a little bit of personality, which will probably earn them more followers, when they are told that the Twitter account doesn’t really belong to them? That’s what company’s have official social media teams for.

Unless a journalist or blogger explicitly agrees to these kinds of terms, it’s hard to see how PhoneDog can lay claim to an account that is used to tweet about more than just topics that a blogger might write about. Go to any blogger or journalist’s Twitter account and you’re bound to find more than just official stories. You’ll find personal opinions, personal photos, and other topics that are of interest to them as people regardless of their beat.

PhoneDog’s lawsuit is reminiscent of the question, ‘Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?’ Did Noah Kravitz gain followers because of his position at PhoneDog, or did PhoneDog gain readers because of Kravitz’s style? There are far too many questions in this complex story that simply can’t be answered.

One thing is clear. If PhoneBeat’s lawsuit is successful, it will likely change the landscape of social media in journalism, and could chip away at part of the very essence that has made tools like Twitter an essential and daily part of our news consumption.

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