This election is the first election since the social media explosion. In 2005 Youtube was still in it's very earliest days, Twitter was a dream and Facebook was limited to American college campuses.
Now... Facebook is almost universal in Britain. I'm pretty sure my Nan will be on it by the end of the year. Twitter is "the in thing" still, despite near media Twitter saturation last year and Youtube probably has more hours watched per day by British people than most television channels.
This offers amazing opportunities for parties, activists and even, shock!, your "average" voter. But it also comes with some major dangers for everyone too.
The dark side of campaigning on Twitter is a great little article about the pitfalls of trying to spread your political message on Twitter. It's very easy to turn someone off in 140 letters, but not easy to convince. Even the most innocent of Tweets can come across as an attack or as defensive unintentionally and just in the last few days I've lost a few followers over Tweets I thought were just expressing my opinion.
But the real power isn't in convincing people who to vote for. Oh you can help, and the internet allows you to have instant contact and near unlimited resources to help educate people on your point of view. Friendly debates take on a whole new meaning when you are able to fact check on the fly. But really the power is in engaging people. People who feel unable to engage with your staid suit wearing politicians on the doorstep and who are uninspired by bland political advertising.
Take "We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!". Here's a humourous Facebook group, set up ato emulate the success of the Rage Against The Machine getting to Christmas #1 campaign. It may be humourous, but I think it really does tap into something important... the complete and total disregard politicians have for young people. Why should they take an election seriously when they are the people who are out of work, paying tuition fees, facing disconnection thanks to the Digital Economy Bill, they are the "Great Ignored" as the politicians woo the grey vote. They are the people most likely to be continually searched by police and security guards wherever they go. They are the people who will have to pay, ultimately. So their "fuck it, let's have a laugh" attitude is actually a good sign. They are being engaged. They are being informed. They are making electoral decisions. And perhaps they might throw a spanner in the works of an already crazy election.
And other independent, and not so independent, campaigns are springing up to encourage people to take part this election. Invincecable launched with a Youtube video, Labservatives with a "real world" poster campaign, and MyGayVote allows a quick reference to previous Commons votes on GLBT issues. Even the Greens are getting in on the act: OnlyGreen.
All of this raises an interesting question: what affect will this have on the result? Will it be negligible? Or could it, especially in this tight of a contest, tip the balance one way or another?
Personally I think the ultimate power of the internet, for good or ill, in this election will be to focus a magnifying glass upon candidates history, and their social media interactions. Those who enter politics with things in the closet or think they can get away with unfounded smears are already discovering the power of the internet. That might have some downsides... but it'll help keep them honest!
I think, perhaps, the changes under way now might not affect this election too much. But the lessons learnt may shape the future of our political system and our very society in ways we cannot foresee.
If you feel benevolent and particularly generous, this writer always appreciates things bought for him from his wishlist