A technology Web site, PhoneDog.com, and one of its former chief editors, Noah Kravitz, are embroiled in a legal battle that could have fascinating repercussions for social networks. Kravitz is suing PhoneDog over contractual issues, but it's the counter-suit that really has my attention. PhoneDog is suing Kravitz over the use of his Twitter handle. They claim that he improperly kept the Twitter name after he left the company, and that he owes them damages of $2.50 for each Twitter follower he took with him, for each month he held them after he left. At 17,000 followers when he left, and 8 months since then, that starts damages at $370,000. So, that's not even the full value PhoneDog puts on the Twitter account, but rather the value that Kravitz took with him when he left. PhoneDog essentially believes a key Twitter account is worth half a million dollars per year.
I could fill pages with disclaimers about this case. I used to be a tech journalist full time, and I was friends with just about every editor with a byline on all of the sites involved. I still see them regularly on a professional basis, and we still drink and joke and tell embarrassing stories about the time we got too excited over a new phone with polyphonic ringtones. So, I'm not going to say who's right and wrong.
I'm also not going to simply flesh out the merits of the case. You can find those details elsewhere. I'm not going to analyze this issue from an unbiased perspective. I'm not legally qualified to do so. I'm just giving my opinion on the case as I understand it.
I went directly to Kravitz, but I didn't talk to anyone on the PhoneDog team. Noah is a friend, but I don't know any of the people named on the PhoneDog side of the case.
[aquote]We're all still feeling our way around Twitter, we're worried about making huge, career-ending mistakes[/aquote]
It seems there are two issues here. The first is how to measure the value of a Twitter account when social networking is part of your business strategy. How and why the account was created makes a difference here. Eventually, that won't be the case. When companies start assigning Twitter accounts like email addresses and phone numbers, they will certainly have more sway over the ownership of that account when the employee leaves. But for now, we're all still feeling our way around Twitter. We're cautious and unsure of its utility. We're worried about making huge, career-ending mistakes.
I tweet a lot. My day job employer does not require it, but does not forbid it. It's all at my own risk, and it's a heavy risk. It is far more likely I'll make a mistake on Twitter that will get me in some sort of trouble than it is I'll generate some great success on Twitter that will prove it's worth the risk.
I asked Kravitz why he opened his Twitter account in the first place.
"I saw enough of the people around me using it that I figured I should be paying attention. And seeing as I make a living posting content to the Web - and tech-related content at that - it seemed like a good, potentially great, way to spread the word about what I was doing."
Kravitz opened his Twitter account as "@phonedog_noah." I asked if he was the first PhoneDog employee to open an account. "I believe I was, yes." Was the "PhoneDog" name in the Twitter handle a company mandate? "No, nobody told me what to name myself."
See. The company did not yet understand the branding value of a Twitter feed. This brings me to the second issue here. Is Kravitz's Twitter feed a part of his work life, or part of his identity? Is it part of his brand, or just something fun he does to pass the time?
I have worked for companies that lay claim to any creations while you are employed. So, if I work for Samsung (which I do), and I create a really amazing pickle slicer, that's Samsung's pickle-slicer now. If the Twitter account is a work product, there could be an argument that PhoneDog owns anything Kravitz creates.
However, what if it is part of his identity? Let's say I work at a company and I change my hair style, lose some weight, and start dressing much better. I might have better luck with my clients, and the company reaps the benefits. If I then leave the company, can they claim to own my image? Should I become slovenly, hairy, and fat again?
I asked Kravitz about how he accumulated so many followers on Twitter.
"I tweet a lot about Phil Collins, trips to the dentist, and sports in addition to technology. Maybe people like me? … I tend to tweet quite a bit in general, and quite a bit about non-technology things - and I tend to carry on conversations with other tweeters, so Twitter is often more of a virtual town square for me than anything else. Some people like my style, some don't, and so it goes."
[aquote]I've always thought about Twitter as a virtual water cooler[/aquote]
I use Twitter similarly. I do comment about mobile technology, which is my job. But I'm in this job because I love mobile tech, and I tweet about the things that interest me. I've always thought about Twitter as a virtual water cooler, similar to Kravitz's idea of a virtual town square. Of course, Kravitz has more than 10X the followers I have, so I suppose he needs a town square (by the way, you can follow me @philipberne, hint-hint).
So, can work lay claim to the relationships you build around the water cooler? If you spend your spare time chatting with strangers in a nearby town square, can your job say you can't take those strangers with you when you leave?
How would that happen, exactly? I suppose that Kravitz could have changed the PhoneDog_Noah Twitter handle to simply "PhoneDog." Then he could have started at scratch with a new account. When you leave an office, you don't get to keep using your desk, or your email account. The desk is physical. They clean it out and the next person takes it. The email account is virtual. They flush it to save space, or dig through your emails for pertinent information, but they can't give it to the next person. It loses all of its value when it is no longer connected to you.
The Twitter account seems to fall somewhere in the middle. It could still have value even if Kravitz weren’t the one behind the tweets. It's like reading a new Robert Ludlum novel. The poor "Bourne" author passed a decade ago, but a fan who wasn't paying attention would still be thrilled by his latest paperback. It would be even easier for PhoneDog to continue tweeting from that account, even with Noah uninvolved.
The most damning evidence against PhoneDog might be Kravitz's last post. He suggests readers find him on his blog, or check out his newly renamed Twitter feed, under the @noahkravitz name. That post is still up at PhoneDog as of writing, so it would seem that PhoneDog is endorsing Kravitz's ownership of the new name, while at the same time suing him over it.
I asked Kravitz about whether he saw his Twitter account as part of his identity, part of his job, or part of his brand.
"I'd say it's all more part of my identity than my brand. In order to view it as part of my brand I'd have to be a better businessperson than I clearly am, given that I'm somehow in the middle of this silly mess. I mean, seriously, would the pitchman for a brand be tweeting photos of himself at the dentist?"