/ 16 April 2009

London developer sells Twitter account to CNN

After setting up Twitter’s most popular account to monitor breaking news, a London web developer has now sold ownership back to CNN.

There are two perennial questions about Twitter: Why bother using it, and how is it going to make money? The second one, at least, may now have an answer thanks to James Cox, the London-based web developer who started the site’s most popular account, @CNNbrk.

Cox has just signed a deal to hand ownership of the account back to CNN itself, although neither he nor the company are making the financial details public. Although he’s been working with CNN for some time on operating the account, from now on it will be officials at the organisation’s Atlanta headquarters who will take ownership and responsibility for it.

I just got off the phone with Cox, who was on his way back from Atlanta, and said that “the outcome has been very good, and it’s been fun doing it”.

Final twist
It’s the final twist in a strange little story, which began when Cox wanted to get breaking news sent directly to his phone. Making money was never the goal, he says: “It’s been nice to end the loop, but it wasn’t the reason for starting it,” he told me. “It was to get access to breaking news without having to resort to crazy steps.”

He wasn’t the only one who thought that it would be good to follow the news on his phone, and soon the number of followers built up (the current total at time of publication was 947 233).

Although Cox had effectively infringed on CNN’s trademark, the company didn’t litigate against him, but decided to work with him to maintain and boost the account. A spokesperson from CNN told me that the company started working with Cox two years ago and that “he’s been a fantastic partner”. Apparently, however, the recent flood of followers means that both sides preferred to agree to move ownership officially back to the mothership.

What’s next? Cox is currently travelling, but he says there could be similar projects on the way.

“It’s fun to do mashups and stuff,” he said. “Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. There’s a lot to be gained by taking additional sources of information … finding ways to take mainstream media sources and mashing it up with new media like Flickr and Youtube and so on. It’s all undecided and subject to change, but I hope to be able to do more good things.”

We can’t be sure how much money is involved here, but it’s actually against Twitter’s terms of service to sell usernames. However, given that this is officially being described as a “transfer of ownership”, they might just get away with it. — Guardian News and Media 2009