What Are Your Twitter Followers Worth, and Who Owns Them?

A new lawsuit values a Twitter follower at $2.50 per month and argues that each one belongs to the plaintiff—not the tweeter. By Brian Ries.

It wasn’t too long ago when hastily departing employees were denied the chance to grab Rolodexes from atop their desks. Goodbyes were brief. Doors were held open.

The tragedy, as it were, was that these outgoing employees were swiftly neutered of their networks—that giant web of business contacts mapping those with money to those who seek it—and forced to start over at their next place of employment. That meant cold calls. Heartless conferences. Constant power lunches. And the like.

Thankfully, and in no small part due to the rise of the personal computer and the exportable contact list, that world’s nearly left us—until, perhaps, now.

A recently spotlighted lawsuit between a mobile phone review website and a departed employee threatens to bring it all crashing back. Except now that network exists in social media, where a friend in real life is a fan on the Web is a business contact to be sold to and is, some argue, a trade secret.

Let’s review the case.

Noah Kravitz, a 38-year-old writer in California, was working for as an editor reviewing the latest and greatest in mobile phones. At some point in his four-year window of employment at the company, Noah signed up for Twitter. The account name he chose, @Phonedog_Noah—indicative of his ties to the company—would eventually attract 17,000 friends, sources, colleagues, and readers, all interested in his particular blend of tech opinion and general insight on life on the West Coast.

But then he left the company, taking his Twitter account and its 17,000 followers with him. Noah, no longer an employee of Phonedog, changed the account’s name to @NoahKravitz.

Then, eight months later, Phonedog sues Noah, alleging those followers to be theirs, nothing more than a stolen list of customers—his Rolodex for the digital age. The company wanted money—“damages of $2.50 a month per follower for eight months, for a total of $340,000,” per The New York Times. Noah, to no surprise, was shocked.

The numbers the company submitted—$2.50 a month per follower—don’t really add up. There’s literally no industry standard for the value of a Twitter follower. What’s the value of a friend? Online, and in real life, it’s very much a world of quality over quantity, and any attempt at establishing a rate is generally derided. If numbers do exist, they most likely were fudged together for new business pitches fused in the fires of social-media gurus and new-media entrepreneurs.

Noah’s account, however, was not fudged. His was created, nurtured, and authentically managed by Noah himself. The tweets were real. The followers, then, are too. But the company is holding its ground. “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 LLC,” the company said in a statement to the Times. The case now sits with a judge. Time will tell if Noah gets to keep his account.

For those of us who tweet, post, and blog our way through new-media careers, the implications this case could bring to the industry are chilling. If Noah loses, it could set a dangerous precedent where employees who engage in social media while at work risk losing their accounts upon departure—who could claim one follower is there for professional insight while the other just updates on life? How does one differentiate between friends and business contacts?

Such a struggle would, in turn, make people second-guess using these services in the context of their careers, all at a time when the web is leaning on social media as a new way to connect brands and customers, or reporters with readers, or simply, people.

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Users, knowing the eventual end we’ll all one day face, may never engage with such accounts in the first place. When the brands eventually take back the reins, we’ll watch in horror as our digital selves become zombies, programmed to spew marketing-speak and brand-positive copy in perpetuity. And we’ll be left to start up new accounts, building out a new Rolodex, slowly—our network shattered.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Tweeting in a professional capacity under accounts attached to a company name is already a common practice. This is especially true for reporters at online media organizations.

Earlier this year, the Guardian notes, BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg switched from @BBCLauraK to @ITVLauraK to match her career move, taking 60,000 followers in the process and “sparking a fierce debate about whether her rights to her followers were vested in her as an individual or as a BBC reporter.”

Others, like The Daily’s Dan Hirschhorn, have been down that path more than once. Dan was first known in 2009 as @DanPa2010—a name that reflected the Pennsylvania politics website he ran. Then, in 2010, he was @DanPolitico, a name he took while he worked at the D.C.-based politics site. Briefly, he was @DanAdAge. Today, he’s @DanTheDaily. Along the way, he’s worked hard at acquiring his 3,000 followers. To lose them would be a disappointment.

“I’ve put work into building my followers, and as long as my handle is associated with a particular employer I consider it my obligation to represent both myself and my employer in the best possible light,” he says. “I am grateful that it hasn’t been an issue. It would certainly be a disappointment if I had to jettison the following I built up every time I switched jobs.”

This is the right way to do things, says Dan Schawbel, the founder of Millennial Branding and author of the personal branding book Me 2.0. People, he says, want to connect with people. That’s especially true for a generation that’s been brought up to believe personal brands always hold the trump card over the employer.

“You’re following the person, not the company,” Schawbel says. “Even though the person worked for the company, it’s still the human connection you’re building with the person. The human connection comes first.”

If the tweets being sent to @PhoneDog this week are of any indication—many raise concern at the lawsuit and openly support Noah in his fight to keep his Twitter followers and not pay “damages”—that human connection rules supreme. For businesses facing angry customers and the prospect of business lost, that’s a number far more quantifiable than the value of one’s followers on the Internet.