Getting a handle on celebrity Twitter IDs

While Twitter is clear about how celebrities can reclaim accounts in their name, average users have little they can do to grab inactive IDs. But there are steps you can take.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
Many Twitter users are said to be confused as to what the company's policies are regarding reassigning IDs. For now, the company is not handling individual requests, unless they fall under its impersonation or trademark rules. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

In the fall of 2008, most likely after watching an episode of "Survivor," I hopped over to Twitter.com and registered the ID @jeffprobst.

I have absolutely no memory of doing this, or why I signed up using the name of the host of long-running reality show, but I've been a fan of the (CNET parent company) CBS series since 2000 and it must have seemed like a funny idea at the time to anonymously post little tidbits like "The tribe has spoken" or "I'll go tally the votes." But I quickly forgot I'd done this, and for more than 16 months, the account lay fallow.

And it would have probably stayed forgotten forever, except that on Thursday, for reasons I still can't figure out, messages began flooding into my Yahoo Mail account, alerting me that one person after another was now following me on Twitter. I didn't even know what Twitter ID this involved until I logged into my e-mail and read, "Hi, jeffprobst, [such and such a person] is now following your tweets on Twitter."

Using a tool that lets you see when a Twitter ID was registered, I discovered that I had claimed @jeffprobst on September 28, 2008, something that was possible since Twitter has few if any restrictions on what names you register, so long as they're available.

I was also able to determine that Probst himself had registered @Jeff_Probst on April 28, 2009. Sheepishly realizing the situation, I dashed off literally the first tweet in the account's history, "@jeff_probst I'd like to return this account to you. Do you want it? No strings attached."

He has yet to take me up on my offer.

ID reassignment
With tens of millions of users, Twitter has become one of the most popular sites on the Internet. Along with that has come the inevitable customer service nightmare of dealing with what must be thousands of users seeking resolution about some account name issue or another.

The instances that get the most attention, of course, are those involving celebrities. For example, Tony LaRussa, the manager of Major League Baseball's St. Louis Cardinals, recently sued Twitter, claiming his trademark rights were being damaged by someone using @tonylarussa to post some rather insensitive tweets under his name. Similarly, rapper Kanye West threw a much-publicized fit about the fact that someone else had registered @kanyewest before he did.

It seems that folks like LaRussa and West are among the few who can get Twitter to quickly respond to complaints about account IDs. Situations like theirs fall under Twitter's impersonation policy, which reads, "Impersonation is pretending to be another person or entity in order to deceive. Impersonation is a violation of the Twitter rules and may result in permanent account suspension."

Under that policy, if Probst had petitioned Twitter for control of @jeffprobst, he would almost certainly have gotten satisfaction, and pronto, and there would have been nothing I could do about it.

The company's policy governing trademarks works much the same way. "Using a company or business name, logo or other trademark-protected materials in a manner that may mislead or confuse others or be used for financial gain may be considered trademark infringement," the policy reads. "Accounts with clear INTENT to mislead other will be immediately suspended."

Both impersonation- and trademark-related complaints fall under what Twitter calls "name squatting." Those who feel they have a legitimate name squatting complaint can contact Twitter and fill out a support ticket.

On the other hand, Twitter's rules make it abundantly clear that the service permits parody accounts, so long as users do not have "clear intent to deceive or confuse."

"Twitter users are allowed to create parody, commentary or fan accounts," the parody policy begins. "Twitter provides a platform for its users to share and receive a wide range of ideas and content, and we greatly value and respect our users' expression...In order to avoid impersonation, an account's profile information should make it clear that the creator of the account is not actually the same person or entity as the subject of the parody/commentary."

Not cut and dried
For Twitter, which is still a small company, despite its tens of millions of users, situations involving the clear impersonation of celebrities or companies are surely the easiest and quickest to resolve.

But what about the countless situations where things aren't so cut and dried?

One example involves Denny's restaurants. As I wrote last week in a story about Denny's social-media efforts, its dinner menus, as a result of a misprint, mistakenly invite customers to visit the company's Twitter account, "twitter.com/dennys." But that ID actually belongs to a Taiwanese man named Dennys Hsieh.

While Denny's restaurants invite diners to visit twiter.com/dennys, the account is owned by a Taiwanese man. Had he not posted to the account in the last few days, he might have lost it due to inactivity. Now, however, the question of whether the restaurant chain can claim the account is up in the air. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

In an interview, Bill Ruby, Denny's vice president of sales and field marketing, said that the company had been in touch with Twitter and that, because Hsieh hadn't tweeted in more than six months, "They've essentially told us it's our domain."

Indeed, Twitter's official policy governing accounts considers them "inactive" if they haven't "been logged into or updated in over six months" and states that "inactive accounts may be automatically removed from Twitter."

And while Twitter did not make a spokesperson available for an interview for this story, a spokesperson did e-mail CNET last week acknowledging that, "after [six] months of inactivity we may be able to release accounts to another party."

In the past, the company had considered nine months the inactivity threshold and had been known to be responsive to requests to take over such accounts.

If Dennys wasn't Hsieh's first name, the Denny's situation would be simple. But according to Laura Fitton, the author of "Twitter for Dummies," "This one is a hard call, because it's the guy's name...If it was a real trademark thing, they wouldn't have to wait the six months. Because it's the guy's real name, it's in a gray area."

Contacted for my previous article about the Denny's situation, Hsieh responded after publication that the restaurant chain had never reached out to him about the account. He also said that he had stopped tweeting last July only because of a glitch in his RSS software that had resulted in his blog no longer automatically forwarding his posts to his Twitter account. Indeed, in the days following the publication of the Denny's article, Hsieh has resumed tweeting, meaning the ownership of @dennys is once again in a very gray area. Denny's may well find itself having to stick to its other two Twitter accounts, @DennysGrandSlam and @DennysAllnightr.

Due to high volume
The vast majority of Twitter users' account ID support requests, however, likely have nothing to do with impersonation or trademark infringement. Rather, they are surely almost all related to someone seeing that what would be a great ID for them is sitting inactive, just begging to be reassigned.

However, despite the fact that Twitter's policy is that accounts may be removed after six months of inactivity, the company states rather sternly that, "We are not releasing inactive accounts on an individual basis at this time unless in cases of Terms of Service violations."

Instead, the company notes that it "is currently working on bulk-releasing all inactive user names," a procedure that would free up registered IDs that have been left unused in much the same way that expired URLs can eventually become available.

Fitton said that she has heard that Twitter hoped to complete this bulk-releasing project early this year but that, "unfortunately, they haven't been able to do that yet."

So does that mean that there's no way to retrieve an inactive ID?

Hardly, said Fitton.

The best thing to do, she explained, is to try to reach out to the owner of the account and politely ask if there's any way they would be willing to turn over the ID to you. It may, of course, be difficult to figure out who such a person is, since there's no way to direct message a Twitter user unless they're following you and because someone who has abandoned an account may well never become aware of someone sending them a so-called @ message. But by Googling their name, or messaging some of their followers, it may be possible to figure out another way to find them.

For example, I used Facebook to find Hsieh, since that service allows any user to send a message to any other. But Denny's apparently didn't try such an approach in its attempts to claim twitter.com/dennys, at least as far as Hsieh can recall.

Ultimately, unless it's a case of impersonation or trademark infringement, Twitter users who want to get their hands on someone else's ID may well have to wait for the company to come up with its automated process and for the account they want to be inactive for six months or more. Until then, short of reaching an accommodation with the account owner, there is probably little that can be done.

But what about a situation where the owner of the inactive account wants to hand it over to the rightful owner? Jeff Probst, I have something for you. All you have to do is get in touch.