Your company doesn't own your Internet presence

I'm tired of the social media B.S. If your company wants to "get" social media, then tell it to get its paws off your likeness.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

PaidContent published an absolutely absurd piece yesterday on the departure of New York Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts, who happens to be quite popular on Twitter, the real-time microblogging platform.

Jim -- a lovely fellow by any measure -- has some 75,000 followers. The premise is that the New York Times or any other employer could very well claim a person's following as a tool of doing business, no different than your corporate laptop or the proprietary documents it holds.

Oh, hell no.

Allow me to count the ways in which this is ridiculous:

  1. Legally, Twitter doesn't own your tweets -- but it does own its user accounts. How, exactly, can a company claim jurisdiction over parts of another's platform?
  2. If followers have a market price, does the government get to tax it?
  3. Individuals have work lives and home lives; as people, they are whole. A Twitter account can reflect both. In this scenario, how can a company reasonably claim ownership of an individual's account? (Do they get to take photos of your children, too?)
  4. Further, what if that account precedes the person's relationship with the employer?
  5. For a prominent journalist like Jim, it wouldn't be unreasonable to make an argument that he's a public figure -- that's partially his job -- and so his likeness may be of concern to an employer. But in the social media era, aren't we all?
  6. Finally, the "likeness" and public figure argument gets even shakier once you extrapolate it out to other parts of the Internet. Does a company own your Tumblr? Your Facebook profile and activity? Your resume on LinkedIn? Your ZDNet account and comments?

Questions like this first came about when individual users of the Internet became public users -- when anonymity began to give way to real names, and individuals could be easily connected to their employers. Risk-averse employers tried to clamp down, even though the social web grew largely unfettered. This is the same dynamic that drives the bring-your-own-device, or BYOD, phenomenon in the enterprise.

But it's 2013. Are we really still talking about this? Is there still a lingering perception in business that companies have direct control over what their employees do elsewhere in their lives -- especially on the Internet? (Does the U.S. government lay claim to the followers of Barack Obama when he leaves office? C'mon.) Employers can disapprove of certain activity, sure. But they cannot own.

It's time to face reality. If your company wants to be a social enterprise, as so many seem to lately, then it needs to get the basics down. (To the Times' credit, claiming Roberts' followers was never a question -- it didn't think or care to take them, even though he has "NYT" in his handle, which will soon be changed.) That we must continue to debate this issue is counterproductive.

The people you employ are on the Internet. Get over it.

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