How much is a Twitter follower worth?

A US company is suing a former employee for taking his Twitter followers when he left. What are the

Twitter loves nothing more than a story about Twitter, so the news yesterday that a US company is planning to sue a former employee for taking his followers with him spread fast.

Noah Kravitz tweeted for Phonedog as @Phonedog_Noah, building up 17,000 followers. When he left the company, he changed his username to @noahkravitz but took the followers with him. He claims that his former employer gave him permission to continue using the account after he left, as long as he tweeted on their behalf occasionally. However, the company is now seeking damages of $2.50 (£1.60) per user, per month, for eight months -- adding up to $370,000.

The company has given the following 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.

Moving on from the predictable outrage spawned on Twitter, there are some interesting legal issues here. Of course, it is impossible to draw any unequivocal conclusions based solely on news reports (as opposed to the details of the lawsuit). But it is immediately clear that this could have far-reaching implications for the way that individuals and companies use social media.

There are several key issues here. Firstly: what cost can be placed on Twitter users? How much value social media actually adds is difficult to quantify: how can a company say for sure that X number of Twitter followers has led to X increase in profits or uptake of services? The amount accepted by the court -- if any -- could set a precedent for future cases.

In fact, Twitter is often more useful as a branding tool (rather than a straight-up profit-increasing tool), which leads to the second key issue of intellectual property, the law which Phonedog plans to use. This is also difficult to define, as the New Statesman's legal correspondent David Allen Green explains:

On the basis of the news reports, it appears that the employer is trying to fashion an intellectual property claim rather than a straight contractual claim. If so, the employer may find it rather difficult to explain to a court which of the categories of "intellectual property" such a follower list falls into. The employee did not create the follower list with -- to use the legal jargon -- the "sweat of the brow". Instead, the follower list is voluntary and self-elective by the followers. That is not the same as a normal "database".

Overall, this case will perhaps show how well intellectual property law is adapting to social media. The irony is, of course, that until recently many employers prohibited the use of social media and saw it as too legally risky, but now employers seem to want the legal fruits of good social media practice by their employees.

Clearly, there can be no hard and fast rule, as there will be vast differences in circumstances. Some tweeters might be taken on by media companies because they already have a strong media presence: do they then automatically retain ownership of their own followers? What about those who build up their personal brand while still affiliated to a company?

As social media becomes increasingly important to companies of all descriptions, so this hazy area must become codified. Whichever way this case goes, we can expect an increase in people coming to clear agreements with their employers about who owns their Twitter followers.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.