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Breaking News: Just Not From CNN (Also, Why Being Able to Change Your Username On Twitter Is Really, Really Dumb)

This one’s gotta have legs. About an hour ago, Business Insider reported that the CNN Breaking News account, aka @cnnbrk, was not actually run by CNN at all.

The account was actually being updated by James Cox, who up until very recently was the only user that @cnnbrk was following (it’s since added five CNN affiliates to its roster). It all makes sense, now – hindsight is 20/20, after all – but way back on March 14th I actually queried this very thing. CNN has now acquired the @cnnbrk account from Cox for an undisclosed sum.

There are two things very strange about this story. One, of course, that it wasn’t CNN at all, but nobody noticed. More than that, @cnnbrk is the number one most-followed account on the entire Twitter network. It’s almost certainly going to be the first to break the million barrier, and the real CNN are stepping in just as it’s about to cross the finish line. Well played, sir.

Second, and for me, most confusing, is how this was allowed to happen. When the fake Christopher Walken account (@cwalken) hit about 80,000 followers, Twitter closed him down. Twitter has closed a lot of other fake celebrity accounts down, too. Some of these actually tried to pretend they were the real person; others were homages. @cwalken fell mostly into the latter.

The @cnnbrk account never actually came out and said (in its best Darth Vader-voice) ‘THIS IS CNN’, but it did everything else. The avatar was the CNN logo. The account linked to CNN.com. The bio reads as if it’s legitimate. And it seemed to share CNN news, even if it never actually linked back to the stories directly. It just provided headlines. Fine, that’s why we all signed up. (Even if it wasn’t actually very good at the breaking news part – again, now it begins to add up.)

Surely a brand with a trademark has a greater claim to charges of impersonation – thereby violating Twitter’s terms of service – than a celebrity?

Now the account is legitimate, and we can only assume that CNN is going to start updating like crazy. The real CNN account – @cnn – has a measly 62,852 followers. I mean, that’s rubbish. Almost embarrassing.

But this has got me thinking. One problem I’ve always had with Twitter is the way the network allows you to change your username. This is a terrible idea, and one that virtually no other major social media platform (or bulletin board, for that matter) allows. And with good reason – it’s stupid, because it opens the possibility for abuse.

But it’s acceptable on Twitter. And if one assumes that @cnnbrk was not exchanged for a Larry King t-shirt and a packet of smokes, I can see a real market developing for folks building up large followers on Twitter and then selling that account to the highest bidder, who will promptly change the username to fit their brand/product/interests/evil schemes and start tweeting away. It happens frequently with blogs; why not with a micro-blog, too?

Of course, there’s always a drop-off in this kind of thing, and that would be factored into any purchase price. But buying a ready-made audience of one million or more has got to be worth every penny, even if you lose twenty per cent. And it’s not necessarily all dark side. What if the new owner is not some two-bit snake oil salesman, but a respectable organisation? What if in six months time Apple decided they want to buy a ready-made account with a million followers, and run it as their own? Or Oxfam? Or Greenpeace? Or Amnesty International?

Or The Church of Scientology?

Let’s be real – unless it was a grade-A celebrity, if some random guy on your follower list suddenly changed his username and avatar, chances are you’d never notice, certainly if you’re following a lot of other people.

If this feature on Twitter remains, believe me, this will happen. It happens in every massively-popular network, even without the rename feature – accounts are sold and bought on auction sites in everything from World of Warcraft to Make Money Online blogs – but on Twitter it’s especially attractive as you don’t have to adopt that identity. In seconds, you can make it your own.

With all the extra attention, and especially now as it’s been proven authentic – albeit just for a day or so – @cnnbrk will still inevitably be the first Twitter account to pass the one million follower mark. Which leaves me with mixed emotions; on one hand, I’m kind of supportive as it was the work of one guy, as opposed to a team. But on the other, isn’t it somewhat alarming that the first account on Twitter to break that threshold was actually a fake?

UPDATE: Jason Calacanis has stated that James Cox offered to sell him the @cnnbrk account two weeks ago for $50K.

Jason Calacanis Turns Down @cnnbrk Offer

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