Who Owns Your Twitter Account?

Tech writer and blogger Noah Kravitz used to work for mobile phone review site Phonedog.com, and during his time there, Kravitz wrote numerous articles and started a Twitter account, @PhoneDog_Noah. Twitter continues to be a popular social media application used for “microblogging”–sharing personal and professional updates to a limit of 140 characters. Celebrities, writers, and ordinary people all use Twitter to post their thoughts to their “followers”–other users who subscribe to an individual’s Twitter feed to automatically, and immediately, receive any and all updates from that followed user.

Tech writer Noah Kravitz garnered thousands of Twitter followers as a blogger for PhoneDog.com, and now faces a lawsuit from his former employer.

Tech writer Noah Kravitz garnered thousands of Twitter followers as a blogger for PhoneDog.com.

Writers like Kravitz in the tech space tend to use Twitter to post lightning-fast, relevant updates on highly-sought after tech products, even before penning full articles or filming video reports. Since Kravitz’s position got him early access to exciting new smartphones and other in-demand tech gadgets for which he’d provide quick-hit coverage by “tweeting,” the blogger was able to garner ┬ásome 17,000 Twitter followers. But like many reporters who use Twitter, Kravitz also used the account to post personal notes alongside the work-related stuff. What he had for breakfast and what the weather was like were just as likely to appear in his Twitter feed as thing like his professional opinions on telecom news developments, and direct links to phone- and tech-related blogs he’d written.

In 2010, Kravitz parted ways with PhoneDog.com, and was told by the company he’d be allowed to keep the Twitter account, so long as he would “tweet on their behalf from time to time.” The writer agreed, and also changed his Twitter account name to simply “@NoahKravitz.” However, PhoneDog.com filed suit against its former employee the following year, demanding a total of $340,000 in damages on the grounds that Kravitz’s thousands of followers comprised a customer list that the company intended to aggressively protect in the interests of its growing social media efforts. (As it turns out, there’s potentially more to the lawsuit story, since Kravitz had previously laid claim to both backpay and a portion of the site’s ad revenue–and the blogger feels the lawsuit is little more than retaliation.)

The details behind the lawsuit aside, the actual dispute raises what could be an important precedent for Twitter and future social media use. In contrast to the world’s most popular social media service, Facebook–which does not allow any business to have a personal account and instead requires the use of a separate account known as a “fan page”–Twitter was built around the idea of a one-person, one-account correlation. While Twitter does let businesses have official Twitter accounts (and has instituted a “verified” status for celebrities and recognizable businesses), the service is really about person-to-person communication rather than simply being a news feed. As such, public figures like Kravitz, who are associated with a company but also frequently tweet about non-work-related topics, are extremely common on the service.

As such, while the legal details may end up getting sorted out in court, it seems increasingly important for Twitter users who represent one or more companies to work directly with their employers to figure out a policy up-front that both parties can live with. Because waters can get muddy quickly once bloggers on Twitter start amassing what could be argued as either an important business contact list, or a growing cult of personality, it seems best for companies to make arrangements and set boundaries prior to ever setting up the accounts. In cases like Kravitz’s, in which a company is already working with an established Twitter user who has garnered many followers, it’s likely best for companies to consider the possibility of a similar occurrence and prepare in advance.

To this end, companies can and should create separate, official business Twitter accounts that shadow their most established users by repeating (or re-Tweeting) particularly newsworthy Twitter updates such as product announcements, important blog posts and photo or video galleries, and special offers, such that they can start to build their own Twitter following, without having to rely on the followers of employees who may later leave for greener pastures.
Companies would also do well to consider the potential public relations black eye they might suffer by attempting to forcibly take back a previously unspoken-for Twitter account. Regardless of whether companies have the legal right to seize a former employee’s account and its followers, the incident involving Kravitz has become a matter of public record that hasn’t reflected well on PhoneDog.com. While more and more companies discover the importance of using social media to connect with their customers, they should also keep in mind the power of social media to instantly spread information widely–particularly when those social media users aren’t speaking highly of them.

Comedian Louis CK Skips TV and Digital Piracy to Make a Million

Divorced, forty-something, father-of-two comedian Louis CK has been in the game for 27 years, and his brand of angry, profane, and unflinchingly honest material has earned him thousands of fans, as well as comparisons to such comedy greats as Richard Pryor and George Carlin. While he’s had a rocky relationship with Hollywood (his first major motion picture, Pootie Tang, was re-cut into an unrecognizable mess by film studio MGM, and his first major TV series, Lucky Louie, was canceled after a single season), the comic’s career has flourished in recent years, due in no small part to the power of online distribution.

Comedian Louis CK

While comedian Louis CK has done traditional TV specials, his latest online-only project has raised more than a few eyebrows--and more than a million bucks.

CK (whose real surname is the similarly-pronounced Hungarian “Szekely”) became an Internet sensation with an angry rant commonly referred to as “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” on a 2009 episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien,, in which he observed that despite great advances in technology, modern Americans seem unhappier than ever. The fact that CK’s remarks happened to air shortly after the 2008 stock market crash made them incredibly timely and the video went viral–the original post on YouTube has since exceeded four million views.

But he hasn’t stopped there. Aside from creating his own TV series for FX, Louie, the comic has relentlessly continued to work on new material, including the onstage special Live at the Beacon Theater, which CK has made available for download exclusively on his Web site, LouisCK.net. As the comic stated on his site, “The experiment was: if I put out a brand new standup special at a drastically low price ($5) and make it as easy as possible to buy, download and enjoy, free of any restrictions, will everyone just go and steal it? Will they pay for it? And how much money can be made by an individual in this manner?”

As soon as you pay the $5 price for the stand-up comedy show, it’s unlocked as a downloadable video. And aside from limiting the number of times the video can be downloaded per purchase (presumably to avoid excessive bandwidth costs), the show has relatively few legal strings attached–no lengthy terms of service to read, no ongoing subscription, and no sale of your personal information to some enormous corporate entity. CK has released the video more or less on good faith, asking only that fans consider buying the special, rather than downloading a pirated version for free.

Digital content continues to be a bone of contention between consumers–many of whom download pirated music, movies, and software for free without compensating the creators–and content providers, who either attempt to use restrictive digital rights management software to prevent illegal distribution, or are exploring alternate distribution methods that can still turn a profit, such as ad-supported video sites like Hulu. Given CK’s popularity, it seemed like his latest special might very well have ended up being yet another piece of content to be pirated rather than paid for; yet on December 21, the comic issued a statement on his Web site stating that the sales of the special had exceeded a million dollars.

“So it’s been about 12 days since the thing started and yesterday we hit the crazy number,” says the Web site update. “People are paying attention to what’s going on with this thing. So I guess I want to set an example of what you can do if you all of a sudden have a million dollars that people just gave to you directly because you told jokes.” Specifically, the comic plans to split the pot into four parts: one to be used to cover the special’s original production costs; one to paid out to his staff as a holiday bonus; one to be paid out to various charities; and the remainder to stay in the comedian’s pocket to cover his own living expenses.

Of course, CK’s special is by no means the first example of digital content for sale exclusively on the Web, nor is his business model particularly original–for instance, the New York-based startup company Kickstarter has made a business out of letting would-be entrepreneurs openly seek funding online. But the huge success of CK’s special does represent an intersection of in-demand content and inexpensive, customer-friendly digital distribution that actually works–without TV executives and without copy-protection software–and in a way that may very well be a sign of things to come for broadcast media in the future.