Are Twitter Followers Considered Property Assets?

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Jan 6, 2012

Recruiters and sourcers who frequently use Twitter to gather leads, promote jobs, and source candidates for their company will be specifically impacted by a recent lawsuit involving PhoneDog (a tech review site) and former employee Noah Kravitz. If you currently blend your personal and professional social media profiles, you may want to consider a few of these issues and take heed to some precautions.

An unprecedented legal case emerged on December 25, 2011 over the ownership and value of an employee’s Twitter followers. Blogger Noah Kravitz was employed for four years by and amassed 17,000 followers on Twitter. During this time, he posted articles and reviews publicly associated with PhoneDog. He left the company in October 2010 and changed his Twitter handle from @phonedog_noah to @noahkravitz. Upon leaving, PhoneDog said he could keep his account as long as he continued to Tweet about the company. At the time, Noah believed the parting was on good terms. But eight months later, PhoneDog sues Noah, saying the Twitter followers are considered a customer list and that the estimated value is $340,000 ($2.50 per month per follower for eight months). Noah believes PhoneDog is retaliating against him for his claim of back pay, but the topic is part of a greater employment issue as it relates to social media. The PhoneDog lawsuit shall clarify areas which continue to remain grey with social media; ownership and value.

The primary issue in this case is whether a Twitter follower constitutes property. When an employee leaves a company, they are required to return all company owned assets, to include any Rolodex of customer contacts. This is considered property. However, a Twitter follower does not have the same attributes as a customer and therefore should not be given equal treatment. Some Twitter accounts are created for the use of SPAM and others have a very low-frequency of activity. Only a small percentage of followers have the potential to be considered viable customers. Traditionally, customers are developed from a personal relationship with an employee. If Noah Kravitz’s followers were all customers, could he have a personal relationship with all 17,000 of them?  The concept is clearly unreasonable.

If you were to leave your current position as a talent sourcer, would you keep all of your followers?  Does your Twitter handle represent you or the company you work for?  If you have a clear understanding of who owns your followers, great.  If not, you may want to clarify this with your manager.

A second major issue in this case has to do with the employment status of independent contractors versus employees. During his four years of employment, Noah worked as an independent contractor for PhoneDog. By law, independent contractors are paid, taxed, and insured completely differently than full time employees. As such, they are treated differently, and rarely are they asked to publicly represent the company. PhoneDog endorsed Noah’s choice of Twitter handle (@phonedog_noah) and use of the tool for branding purposes. If PhoneDog is found to have treated Noah as an employee, their position in the case will be greatly weakened.

If you are currently a contract sourcer working for a client, be careful how you represent yourself online.  Keep your Twitter handle personal (@yourname or @sourcer_name).  You might already be cautious about this, but it never hurts to revisit.

Finally, this case is a great example of how negative press will follow you online. PhoneDog has not only risked losing all 17,000 Twitter followers, but they have also lost potential future followers by going after a former employee in a public manner. The public at large does not favor a company who goes after the little man in a lawsuit. The effect of this news story has clearly helped Noah gain more fans and created more enemies for PhoneDog. The long-term ramifications of this will have PhoneDog re-building followers for many years to come.

There are a few things both Noah and PhoneDog could have done to protect themselves. PhoneDog did not have a social media policy in place to help guide employees. If a policy were in place, both Noah and PhoneDog would have had a clearer understanding of ownership.

Sourcers who blog and publicly associate their name with a company should cover all the bases with their employer prior to promoting on social channels. Sourcers should also clearly decide for themselves if they intend to represent themselves or the company on social channels. Creating a separation of the two online identities may be the safer route long-term.

If no social media policy is in place, ask your manager (or client) about using Twitter to promote and source for their jobs.  If possible, get it in writing to protect yourself.  The PhoneDog lawsuit certainly isn’t the first case to deal with social media ownership – and it won’t be the last!

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