After the 2010 elections were over, the opinions started to fly as to whether social media had any real impact on them. Most of the focus was wrong. The question wasn't whether social media had a big impact on the elections.. it's how obvious it became that, since it was a topic of discussion at all, new media will be a political driver in the future.
You see, if it wasn't important or was of no impact, social media would have been largely ignored. Instead, it was mentioned on nearly every political broadcast. Social media is not a "game changer" in politics yet, and probably won't be for a year or so, to be quite honest. What it offers is another tool for outreach, involvement, and rally. If used incorrectly, like any other media, it can also be a tool of self-destruction.
Social networking has been used politically for many things. In Iceland, they used it to create a citizen-driven constitution. That resulted in a draft, written by a Constitution Council, which crowd-sourced it through Twitter and Facebook with hundreds of Icelanders commenting and chipping in verbiage.
On the other hand, politicians closer to home saw the negative impact that over-personalized, ill-conceived social media use can have. Ask David Alexander about how much help his daft attacks on Tories had when it came time to form a coalition.
What social media can do for politics as a whole is get more people involved. As an instantaneous form of communication and a great way to catalyze specific movements or ideas, places like Facebook and Twitter can be unrivaled. During the riots earlier this year, elements in government wanted the ability to shut down social networks temporarily during civil unrest. They saw the networks themselves as the threat, not realizing that it's the people behind the riots that are the threat to governmental status quo. For good or ill, social networking brings people together and however you view their actions, it's not the network that causes the unrest.
Many in social media testified before the Home Affairs Select Committee, stating that the use of their networks and tools were as much a force for good as for evil. While some rioters used these tools to incite others to join and to coordinate criminal activity, many also used them to catch criminals or create peaceful demonstrations. It should be pointed out that discussion of the impetus behind the riots was largely absent. Again, social media was just another tool, as neutral as a football on the field, caring little about who's kicking it or which direction it's going.
Looking around the world, it's obvious that social networking is making a difference politically. Sometimes for good, sometimes not. Egypt is a good example of this. Social media was used to great effect to organize, rally, and make political change. It then became useless because those who used it to organize protest failed to understand its use for the after affect of political restructuring.
On the whole, social networks are a great way to communicate. Since politics is largely about communication, it's obvious that those tools which promote dialogue will be the most useful. I guess that's why I wrote my upcoming book about it entitled "Socially Elected".