chinesefoodHarvard Business School professor Ben Edelman is currently in a world of hurt…of his own making. If you haven’t seen the story [here], the basic narrative is that Edelman – a respected academic who teaches about negotiation – wrote a letter to a Boston area Chinese restaurant complaining that he was overcharged by four dollars.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. People write complaint letters every day. However, his over-the-top correspondence with the restaurant owner quickly took on a life of its own through social media. Within a week of the letters going public there were thousands of tweets, Facebook postings, and other online references to the incident – and just about all of them painted Edelman as the bad guy for bringing a hydrogen bomb to a knife fight.

Whether the good professor is in the right or not, the bigger issue is that he has learned a painful lesson about social media: it’s bigger than him. It’s bigger than all of us, and one abusive email or thoughtless Tweet can boomerang back on the author. Call it karma, or cosmic justice, or simply good old-fashioned comeuppance, but in the digital age it’s how David can take down Goliath.

Just ask Justine Sacco. Remember her? She was the communications director (!) for a major media company who sent out a tweet about Blacks and AIDS shortly before jumping on an airplane from New York to Johannesburg. During the 12 hour flight the Twitterverse went insane, and by the time she landed her posting was front-page news. Within a few days her vacation became permanent when her employer terminated her position. David 1, Goliath, 0.

Business leaders are still trying to figure out what the rules are when it comes to social media, and there are a lot of gray areas. Is retweeting an inappropriate joke or forwarding a blue email cause for firing? There isn’t a clear answer for those situations, but what is clear is that most electronic communications aren’t private and are fair game for critics. Maybe Ben Edelman will remember that the next time he sends out for Chinese food.

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