And they're off. We're now well and truly into electioneering territory as Hobson's Choice the General Election 2010 rolls well and truly into town. Forget any hope of finding out news that isn't connected to three middle aged men trying to out-quip each other. It's everywhere. Including social media. And as a recovering politics geek who spends more time than is healthy on these places, I find it all completely fascinating. Last election Twitter didn't exist, all the cool kids were flocking to MySpace and, while the political blogosphere was in fairly healthy shape (and, it has to be said, a lot friendlier), the whole area was seen as a niche concern. These days, political news is being discussed on social media before the speech has even finished, while somebody will already be plotting the inevitable Downfall parody. Yes, for General Election 2010, social media matters - both to the media and the politicians. And that's both a good and a bad thing.
The bad covers a range of areas, the most obvious being that politicians and the media will try too hard to woo and give credence to what is, in all honesty, a small percentage of the voting population by focusing too heavily on what Twitter users and bloggers are saying. That's not to say they shouldn't, but us social media types may not be representative of the areas of society who a change of government will make the biggest differences to.
[Facebook, incidentally, is a completely different proposition and one where there is are genuine possibilities for breaking down barriers between the public and politicians and enhancing democracy like never before.
My feelings on YouTube and politicians, though, generally falls under the same category as the words "let's do a viral."]
There's also the unsightly and rather depressing sight of grown adults indulging in petty point scoring across these networks, and the media breathlessly reporting this like IT MATTERS. It possibly does, but maybe not to the level it gets elevated to. I'm more interested in working out if the sums add up, or there's a commitment to, say, democratic reform of Parliament than seeing a schoolboy-like putdown that serves nothing other than mutual backslapping from that team.
Then there's the gaffes. With social media now firmly entrenched in our lives, it was inevitable that there would be plenty of political gaffes, fails and misunderstandings on how to use it all.
Us social media bods across the media or in brands engaging online have just about got the hang of what works and what doesn't, by and large, although are always learning. We're adaptable to the needs of our audience because we've been listening and engaging with communities for a while now.
Politicians, with some notable exceptions, haven't. There's a reason why companies are prepared to spend thousands on pounds in training their staff on how to use social media. Sure, they can use Facebook and Twitter for personal use, but that's a very different thing to acting as a representative for your brand in a public space, where anything you do can be attributed to your paymasters. The list of companies who've committed brand-damaging social faux pas grows monthly.
Stuart MacLennan could have probably done with some of this training.
And it's why there will probably continue to be many more social media gaffes as the election campaign carries on. If MacLennan is the only political online casualty over the next month, I'll be a very surprised man.
Yet these sort of fails also highlight the good side of social media and politics. For a start, it enables us to get an insight into prospective candidates, many of whom you'll never have heard of, and have at least something to judge their suitability for office on. And if they fall up short, then that helps inform your vote.
This is something that, the few blogging MPs that existed in 2005 aside, simply wasn't available at the last election and anything that brings politicians closer to the public is a good thing, broadly, in my book.
In many ways, this reminds me somewhat of a post I wrote almost a year ago, on the criticism around Gordon Brown's YouTube video, and Hazel Blears' comments that YouTube was no substitute for knocking on doors.
While I was critical of Blears, perhaps I was also a little disingenuous, although probably not in the way she was meaning. Yes, it's good that politicians are experimenting with social media and using it to campaign with, but it's not really a substitute for talking to the electorate. Fortunately social media allows just that.
But it's a two way conversation and those politicians and political parties that get it right may reap the benefits. Lets not forget, 12 votes can be enough to swing a marginal, so engaging online could just be a seat-winner.
That is to say, those who talk with rather to to the electorate will help their case. A politician could just be on Twitter broadcasting his thoughts, on YouTube, blogging away, and encouraging people to become a fan on Facebook, but all this activity, while making the politician appear a bit more switched on, means nothing if said politician doesn't get engage.
The really good ones will chat back and forth and listen over Twitter, respond to comments on their blog, answer questions on their Facebook page, and be an active member of the YouTube community. Now that becomes a bit more likely to get a precious few extra votes. But more than that, it shows the politician is prepared to listen, engage and respond. A bit like a 21st century version of door knocking.
It's also one of the reasons why, in my mind, the whole Cash Gordon debacle wasn't the greatest of ideas. Many of the most effective or notacable online campaigns tap directly into the zeitgeist of that particular moment. Think Trafigura and Jan Moir.
They are a swift, sharp, popular movement that gains traction because people feel strong enough to, at the very least, Tweet about it. The story or campaign then takes on a life of its own from there, and becomes a story in itself.
But trying to tell somebody on a social network what they should be getting angry about is unlikely to go beyond the traditional supporter base unless it touches a nerve, and the Labour / Unite issue wasn't enough to get worked up about. Had the Conservatives done something quick and cheap around the hiking of cider tax or the Digital Economy Bill, then they might have got more widespread support.
Again, this shows the value of listening and responding - and is possibly why having something cheap and ready to go isn't necessarily a bad idea. It's easy enough to spot something developing on Twitter if you know how to listen, and if it ties in with a political party's ideals, then there's certainly possibilities, providing it's not done in a completely top-down manner.
And if the online campaign is very top-down and has an indifferent response, you're much more likely to see the politically agnostic hijack it for a bit of fun (leaving the page open to a very simple barely-even a hack is just stupid. As is claiming it's still a victory. Sometimes it'd be nice if political people were prepared to say they made a mistake).
Those MPs who understand the sensitivities of a social media environment and listen and respond are those who may well benefit. My own MP has gone up in my estimation for a very quick response to my email about the Digital Economy Bill, although it'd be nice to see them on Facebook and Twitter. It's little things like that which can sway where an individuals vote will go.
Social media, as with its relation to most aspects of life, isn't the be all and end all when it comes to politics, but it is an incredibly useful communication channel to get an insight into the person behind the politician, as well as a chance to ask direct questions, something we so rarely get the chance to do.
Come the end of the election, it'll be fascinating to see how the three main parties - and the other parties - have harnessed social media and how well they've done, on both an individual MP level, and a party level.
There will undoubtedly be more mistakes. But there may be triumphs. And with the possibility of a hung parliament very real, that could make a huge difference. Or at least a difference between me actually knowing who I want to vote for in advance of polling day, as opposed to my usual dilemma of not being impressed with any candidate and having to resist the temptation to draw something rather crude on the ballot paper. Not that I've cocked up my vote yet, mind.
DISCLOSURE: I'm not a member of any political party and have no idea who, if anybody, I'll be voting for come May 6th.