How much is a tweet worth? And how much does a Twitter follower cost?
In base economic terms, the value of individual Twitter updates seems to be negligible; after all, what is a Twitter post but a few bits of data sent caroming through the Internet? But in a world where social media’s influence can mean the difference between a lucrative sale and another fruitless cold call, social media accounts at companies have taken on added significance.
The question is: Can a company cash in on, and claim ownership of, an employee’s social media account, and if so, what does that mean for workers who are increasingly posting to Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus during work hours?
A lawsuit filed in July could provide some answers.
In October 2010, Noah Kravitz, a writer who lives in Oakland, Calif., quit his job at a popular mobile phone site, Phonedog.com, after nearly four years. The site has two parts — an e-commerce wing, which sells phones, and a blog.
While at the company, Mr. Kravitz, 38, began writing on Twitter under the name Phonedog_Noah, and over time, had amassed 17,000 followers. When he left, he said, PhoneDog told him he could keep his Twitter account in exchange for posting occasionally.
The company asked him to “tweet on their behalf from time to time and I said sure, as we were parting on good terms,” Mr. Kravitz said by telephone.
And so he began writing as NoahKravitz, keeping all his followers under that new handle. But eight months after Mr. Kravitz left the company, PhoneDog sued, saying the Twitter list was a customer list, and seeking damages of $2.50 a month per follower for eight months, for a total of $340,000.
PhoneDog Media declined to comment for this article except for this statement: “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 L.L.C. We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands.”
Mr. Kravitz said the lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court in the Northern District of California, was in retaliation for his claim to 15 percent of the site’s gross advertising revenue because of his position as a vested partner, as well as back pay related to his position as a video reviewer and blogger for the site.
The lawsuit, though, could have broader ramifications than its effect on Mr. Kravitz and the company.