With over 70,000 followers, the CNN breaking news bot (@cnnbrk) is the third most popular “user” on Twitter.  The bot posts stories sent through CNN’s breaking news email alerts, but, contrary to what the average Twitter user might believe, the account isn’t owned or operated by CNN.  It’s actually the creation of London web developer James Cox, who built the bot simply because he wanted a way for CNN breaking news alerts to be delivered directly to his cell phone.  I had an opportunity to catch up with James and ask him about the account’s creation and rampant success.  I also got to the bottom of that burning question on the minds of Twitter users in the know: why is CNN allowing someone to infringe on their trademark?

Talk about the genesis of CNNBrk.  Why did you decide to make it?

Back before @cnnbrk, I was looking for a way to get breaking news alerts onto a mobile device in any way possible; I wanted to feel connected even when I was out. It was sort of systemic from 9/11–knowing when to go find a TV set began to make more sense. It took me a while to find the CNN alerts.  Back then it was all desktop tickers or other more convoluted streams (I even spoke to Reuters to see if access to their output was feasible). With the advent of Twitter, especially when it still delivered to my cell phone (I’m in the UK), it seemed like the easiest way to solve that problem, and so @cnnbrk was born.

Did you actively promote the account at the beginning or was its growth mostly organic?

This was the first announcement: http://twitter.com/imajes/status/1963133 – almost two years ago! I didn’t really do much else to promote it; I didn’t really have to. I have tweaked the page a bit to ensure it has decent Google rankings.  The account is the 3rd or 4th listing for “CNN breaking news,” which is nice. At no point has Twitter even mentioned it in a blog post or email, so it’s been very organic.

You’ve mentioned that CNN has been in contact with you.  Describe the nature of this contact.  Have they given you their blessing?

We’ve had a few conversations. Blessing is a difficult word in mainstream media, but certainly the guys over at CNN have done a lot to protect and help me.

Do you think the sheer popularity of the account was what prevented CNN from forcing you to pull the plug?

The popularity has been a defining factor, certainly. I think CNN is aware of the real costs involved with seizing accounts and have done the right kinds of things so far to keep the status quo.

Your bot was at the center of controversy during the summer Olympics. When Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal of the Olympics, many Twitter users who planned on watching a taped, prime-time version of the event complained that @cnnbrk had spoiled the surprise for them.  I found it bizarre that Twitter users who opted into a breaking news service would whine about receiving breaking news.  What was your reaction?

Yeah, it’s a tough one. I certainly felt for the people who were looking forward to seeing the Olympics without the result being pre-empted.  But I think it’s the same as any action replay: you avoid all forms of media till the game is on. There’s a great episode of The Simpsons where Homer ends up running around Springfield avoiding the score, only to be told it by Marge just before the game is on. At the end of the day, the world doesn’t stop, so news doesn’t stop. We’re very much in a 24 hour news cycle, where a story might live or die in the space of just a few minutes–you can’t expect it to pause.

I would think that a better reaction should have been for people to realize the potential for this to happen and choose how they wanted to avoid it. It was pretty amazing to see everyone pile on after the Bolt time and records were announced, as if people hadn’t had enough warning yet!

From my perspective, I chose not to pause the updates.  There’s a healthy percentage of followers who are non American, and therefore un-encumbered by NBC’s tape delay.

When did it first hit you that your account was, for lack of a better phrase, “famous on Twitter?”

I knew early on that I was trending in the top ten/top five Twitter users; a bit of insider info and solid circumstantial evidence pointed me there. With the growth of tracking apps like twittercounter.com it’s more apparent. It also makes you realize you have to be responsible with how you choose to behave with it.  I’ve been more and more careful not to add any non-CNN content into the feed of late, for example.

According to TwitterCounter.com, your account grows by an average rate of 275 followers a day.  Assuming that your account’s growth can keep pace with the growth of Twitter, you’ll have over 170,000 followers within a year.  Do you think this is likely to happen or do you see Twitter’s growth flat-lining?

Actually, the number is a bit depressed, and I’ve not seen any new sign-ups. I think the account has been temporarily flagged, which is annoying. I do fully expect to see the account scale in the same way twitter does. I think it’s responsible for a large number of new twitter users who discover it by Googling for breaking news. But it is also the sort of low volume account that people should subscribe to almost right away.  It’d be great to see it as a suggested account, a sort of “Myspace Tom” if you like.

You can follow James on Twitter at @imajes, and if you’re not already receiving breaking news updates, you can join the masses at @cnnbrk.