The ability for all of us to publish on the social web — to have a voice — is among the most profound sociological, economic, and political developments of our lifetime. It gives us the power to elevate a little boy from Canada to an international singing superstar or to unite a group of people to tear down a dictatorship.

This democratization of power is the central theme of my new book, Return On Influence.  This new power is breathtaking and beautiful. It is inspirational and revolutionary. And, it can be deadly.

We have all seen how social media can be used to bully and destroy. A few months ago on {grow} Leslie Lewis told the story of how her career was destroyed by a social media stalker.  A year ago, a student at Rutgers (where I teach) killed himself after Internet humiliation.

Last week, I was also in a position to use social media power to destroy.

My wife had been admitted to a local hospital for a routine procedure.  We experienced the usual delays and administrative foul-ups (had wrong name on her bracelet!) that we have come to expect from the medical profession but nothing prepared me for the horror I was about to experience.

When I was called to her recovery room (where she was still asleep), I could not believe my eyes. The room was filthy. The trash can was filled with tubes and debris from another patient’s procedure. There was trash all over the floor — paper, a used drinking straw, and pieces of some strange green organic material. Worst of all, there were drops of blood (not hers!) across the floor. I was disgusted and outraged. These were like the conditions I have heard about from missionary doctors working in a Third World country.

I took out my phone and took both pictures and video to document the mess … with my wife sleeping peacefully in the middle of it. Nobody would believe this.

I finally was able to flag down an attendant and angrily pointed out the problem. Her response was “Oh … I didn’t see that.”

Perhaps you could overlook a clear drinking straw on a white floor, but certainly not bright red blood drops or a trash can overflowing with used plastic tubes.

When the surgeon came in, I explained how repulsed I was … and I was still feeling ill about the unsanitary conditions even after the blood was wiped up (with a wet paper towel). He said that he would report it and that I would be getting a call from the hospital administration.

Twenty-four hours later I had not received a call and I was still seething.  My adrenaline was saying “post the video.” Instead, I posted a query on Facebook and asked the world what they would do. The recommendations ranged from “keep it in-house” to “get the media involved.”

I called the patient advocate and reached a voice recording, notifying me that she was only available during certain business hours. I also tried to leave a request through the hospital website but the form was broken and I just got an error message.

Later that day, I received a return call from the patient advocate. She was professional and apologetic and said she would investigate the situation.

Two days after this discussion, my wife got a call of apology from the head of the department and a letter from the patient advocate. And that’s how it stands.

This episode represented the first time in my life that I had a “social media voice” go off in my head … “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? I HAVE A VOICE!”  I knew that I could have humiliated this hospital on the evening news … maybe even caused an investigation of some kind. Perhaps I should have.

But whether you agree with my decision or not, I hope you will consider this advice: If you ever get into a situation where you can use your social media power to destroy, don’t let adrenaline make the decision for you.  That’s how people are getting hurt and humiliated these days.

When I let the adrenaline subside, I thought about the situation and realized that if I went public with this, the most likely outcome would be that some hourly-wage attendant would lose her job. I would probably be hurting a family more than a hospital.  That is not what I’m about. That was not the right decision for me.

Every day I see destruction, hate, and viciousness on the web from people who can’t keep their adrenaline in check.  The social web is a place of stunning beauty and terrible darkness … just like the human race I suppose.

I’ll open myself and my actions to public scrutiny because this is an important topic we are all likely to face at some point. Did I do enough as a civic duty in this case?  What would you do if you were in a position to use social media to destroy?

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