In the battle between CNN and actor Ashton Kutcher for Twitter followers, the cable network appears to have skirted a rule by the startup that bars buying or selling of free user accounts. Potentially more important, however, the controversy may spur Twitter to adopt its long-awaited business plan.
CNN, one of the most visible proponents of Twitter, spent Wednesday and Thursday explaining it did not purchase the “CNNBRK” account from a London developer. Rather, CNN said it hired James Cox as a social media consultant, an arrangement that also included Cox transferring control of the popular Twitter account to the television network, according to the Tech Crunch blog.
CNN described the agreement with Cox as formalizing a relationship that began in 2007. Over that time, Cox converted e-mail news alerts to Twitter messages sent to followers of the “CNNBRK” account.
Although a Twitter policy statement says user names for sale “will result in account suspension,” CNN executive KC Estenson told the Los Angeles Times the cable news organization had met with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone to discuss the agreement.
Cox met with CNN on a recent visit to Atlanta and concluded “maybe it’s time to officially transfer [the Twitter account] over,” spokesperson Jennifer Martin told InternetNews.com.
Martin complained of a “game of semantics” being played over whether the Twitter account was “acquired.” Asked whether Twitter should clarify its policy to prevent such controversy, the spokesperson refused to say. Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.
The decision by CNN to own the Twitter account via a consulting contract may be the result of a failed attempt in 2008 to outright sell a Twitter account. Although Rocketboom founder Andrew Barron briefly offered his account with 1,500 followers for sale on eBay and Craigslist, the sale was halted a week later.
In a possible sign of future problems for Twitter’s policy against sales of its free user accounts, TwitPub has opened a service permitting users of the micro-blogging platform to sell access. For at least $0.99 per month, a person could get access to popular Twitter accounts and send updates to followers.
The CNN case only increases the urgency that Twitter devise a business case for the social media service, one analyst told InternetNews.com.
“Eventually, they are going to have to implement a business model,” ABI Research analyst Michael Inouye said. He said the San Francisco-based company could offer other media companies premium accounts, allowing for longer “tweets” and other services not available for free. The CNNBRK account transfer may signal how Twitter could monetize itself.
Until Twitter settles on a business case and develops sensible rules on the ownership of accounts, “it’s still pretty much the Wild West,” Gartner analyst Allen Weiner told InternetNews.com.
As for the current Twitter war, Kutcher and CNN are neck-and-neck with @aplusk attracting 966,156 followers and 973,103 for @cnnbrk. If he wins, the actor pledged to donate 10,000 mosquito beds to a charity.