How much is a Twitter account worth to you? According to a company trying to collect damages from a disgruntled employee, each of its Twitter followers is worth $2.50 a month. At that rate, the account of a technology powerhouse like Lady Gaga would be worth $3.6 billion a year.
The lawsuit [PDF] now before a federal district court judge in Northern California involves an online mobile phone news and reviews website called PhoneDog and former employee Noah Kravitz.
While working for PhoneDog for four and a half years, Kravitz had access to a Twitter account named @PhoneDog_Noah. When Kravitz resigned his position with the company, he took the account and the 17,000 followers he'd built up over the years with him. He also changed the account's name to @noahkravitz.
According to PhoneDog, which claims to attract 1.5 million visitors a month and hosts a video library eyeballed by three million viewers a month, it asked Kravitz to relinquish use of the @PhoneDog_Noah account, which he didn't do.
Kravitz has told Forbes that he saw no reason to turn the account over to PhoneDog since he created it and was the only one who knew its password. PhoneDog argues that Twitter accounts in the form @PhoneDog_employee name belong to the company and passwords to the accounts are its confidential property.
Since leaving PhoneDog, Kravitz landed a job with a competitor, TechnoBuffalo, but, according to PhoneDog he continues to use the renamed account to "communicate with PhoneDog's followers without PhoneDog's permission," as well as to discredit and disparage PhoneDog.
For those reasons, PhoneDog wants the court to order Kravitz to pay his former employer for eight months of unauthorized usage of the Twitter account, which it pegs at $42,500 a month (based on 17,000 users at $2.50 ahead per month), or $360,000.
Needless to say, Kravitz believes PhoneDog's account estimates to be a little inflated. He maintained that his account has no monetary value at all. But even if it did, it would be around $4380 (TweetValue.com) or $7705 (whatsmytwitteraccountworth.com). Both numbers, by the way, are below the minimum jurisdictional requirements of the federal district courts, which means the judge in the case could reject it if Kravitz's estimates on the value of the account are accepted.
Even if they're not, though, PhoneDog is going to have an uphill fight trying to persuade a jury to award it damages based on calculations that, if applied to an account the size of Lady Gaga's, would yield a sum the size of the budget deficit for two years in Wisconsin.
"I’m sure PhoneDog feels harmed by Kravitz’s actions," writes law student Lauren Campbell in the Citizen Media Law Project blog.
"He allegedly stole its Twitter account," she adds. "If true, his followers were PhoneDog’s followers, and he stole them too."
"But did PhoneDog suffer economic damages?" she asks. "I doubt it, at least not in any measurable way. Facebook’s expected $100 billion IPO aside, until the social media industry figures out how to value itself, plaintiffs like PhoneDog may face insurmountable hurdles in convincing a court that a free service results in monetary damages."
Meanwhile, PhoneDog may have bigger things to worry about. When PCWorld tried to access the company's website on Sunday in the Chrome browser, we received the message: "phonedog.com contains malware. Your computer might catch a virus if you visit this site."