A fight between a company and a former employee over his Twitter account is raising questions about who can "own" a Twitter follower and just how much each one is worth. The New York Times has the story of PhoneDog.com, which is suing a former writer over control of his Twitter account and the following they say he built as a representative of the company.

While writing for PhoneDog, writer Noah Kravitz opened a Twitter account, combining the company's name with his own (@Phonedog_Noah), which he used to post about his work. When he quit the company, he changed the name (@NoahKravitz), but kept the 17,000 followers tied to the account. The company originally gave him permission to keep the account and asked that he simply tweet about them from time to time. Then eight months later, they filed a lawsuit, claiming that his followers constituted a "customer list" and he owes them $340,000 for taking it with him.

Kravitz says the lawsuit is retaliation for another dispute with the company (he's asking for a percentage the site's advertising revenue and back pay), but regardless of their personal grievances the case does raise interesting questions about the dollar value of social media and who has the right to control it.

The idea of customer contacts and Rolodexes as proprietary information that doesn't belong to the salesperson who collected it is an established practice in the traditional business world. Those matters are often negotiated both before and after an employee joins or leaves a company. But in the realm of social media, where personal identity is often confused with corporate branding, those distinctions are less clear. Kravitz may have been working for and promoting PhoneDog via his account, but his followers likely included friends, co-workers, competitors, rivals, haters, and fans who could care less about cell phones, but simply liked his writing. Not to mention spambots, who inflate the follower accounts of even the most obscure Twitter users. The idea that all 17,000 "people" who follow Kravitz online, were doing do because of PhoneDog is disingenuous at best.

Even if you accept PhoneDog's premise that Kravitz's followers belong to his employer, there's also the question of what those followers are worth to the company. The $340,000 figure for damages was calculated by valuing each follower at $2.50 a month for eight months — an absurd valuation. The company won't say how they arrived at that conclusion, but it seems highly unlikely that each user could generate that much revenue and/or cost that much to obtain. Anyone who has used Twitter for any length of time knows that there are numerous tricks to inflating follower accounts and that the vast, vast majority of users are highly disengaged. They neither click on links nor buy products sold there, assuming they even log into their accounts at all.

That doesn't mean that these aren't questions worth answering though. In the media, many journalists are compelled by their employers to start Twitter accounts and many include the name of their publication in the handle. (A practice we've long spoken out against.) When they leave the company, they may or may not take their followers with them, depending on whether the reader's loyalty is to the writer or the publication. (See @benpolitico's impending move from Politico to BuzzFeed.)

But the important point — one that PhoneDog does not seem to be considering — is that the question of loyalty is up to the reader. The company and writer don't get to decide who reads who. They don't even get to choose their own followers. The followers choose them, and they are a notoriously fickle bunch. In fact, given the vindictive nature of Internet users who hate to see companies bully individuals, winning the fight (and Kravitz's Twitter) would likely cause most of those people to abandon the account and PhoneDog forever.

Image via Flickr via user Mykl Roventine