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.
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 some 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.