The concept of "the digital election" has been attracting a lot of attention in Australia, but too much time has been spent answering the wrong question: how will social media affect the political parties and their campaigns?
If we focus on that question, the answer probably won't be that exciting. Sure, some candidates are obtaining small donations from more contributors, thanks to the internet. Certainly, others are reaching voters in new ways using new tools. However, the shift is evolutionary not revolutionary.
Likewise, if we focus on a related question — how is social media allowing voters to speak to politicians? — then the signals are mixed.
On the one hand, there have been some extraordinary public campaigns that have allowed voters to speak their minds. For example, GetUp used online microdonations to fund a scathing anti-government climate change advertisement that screened during the 2007 Australian rules football grand final.
But on the other hand, these examples are still the exception in Australia. At a roundtable discussion we hosted at Hill & Knowlton today, both Tanya Plibersek MP and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said they must speak directly with people who are affected by their policies, many of whom are not using the internet to express their views. Ms Plibersek talked about the urgency of having someone walk into her electoral office because their welfare payments had been suspended, and the time required to assist them. She and Senator Fierravanti-Wells said they were inundated with direct approaches from the public, and were lucky to carve out much time at all for online reading.
No, the biggest change in my view is in the answer to a third question: how are voters speaking with each other?
Until recently, voters held their political conversations in private spaces, from the bus stop to the kitchen table. These conversations were separate from the public realm that's occupied by politicians, journalists, PR practitioners and other members of the political class. They sometimes changed how individuals voted, but they almost never became part of the public record.
Today, any voter can hold a conversation in public. Every blog post can be found through a Google search. Every statement is part of public debate. Increasingly, these conversations will affect how our nation makes up its mind on election day.
Certainly, focusing on voter-to-voter conversations is the approach we've taken with Election Predictor, which allows individual voters to share their personal polling predictions with their friends, especially via Facebook. It's not designed to showcase the expertise of professional pollsters; it's designed to liberate everyone's inner pollster.
Likewise, this is the approach taken by organisations like iVote Australia and Election Tracker, who spoke at the roundtable about how young people are using the internet to talk about the issues that matter to them, rather than the "mortgages and interest rates" that dominates mainstream coverage.
Social media is just a tool, but so were the printing press and the wheel. In my view, we're in the earliest stages of a social revolution. In time, democracy will become a conversation.