Social networking is starting to infiltrate every part of our lives, from reconnecting with old friends to sharing photos to voicing your opinions on the Apple iPad.

In today's converged media environment, consumers take it for granted that content will be fed to them through multiple channels. So it was inevitable that social networking would play a fundamental part in the political decision making process.

The UK population has been turning to the internet in droves to help guide them through the entire election, including researching the various parties and their MPs, registering to vote, voicing their own opinion and discussing topics affecting local and general issues.

According to analytical firm Experian, UK vote-related searches increased by 169 per cent between the week ending 3 April 2010 and the week ending 10 April with searches for the most popular term, 'register to vote', increasing nine-fold.

During the historic televised prime-ministerial debate, Twitter showed more than 184,396 tweets for the #leadersdebate, equating to more than 29 tweets-per-second.

Similarly, surfers flocked in their tens-of-thousands to other social networks, news sites and blogs to comment and consume information about the event. Even Google is lending a helping hand with its own dedicated election 2010 page tracking various UK Election search trends.

Beyond this major event, topics such as the passing of popular bills are increasingly discussed, petitioned and viewed on social networks such as Facebook, with the real time immediacy allowing political figures and the general public to have a greater impact on the decision making process, not just after the fact, but in near real time.

The same trend was seen in the US during the last election and was used to particularly good effect by Barack Obama and the platform to help raise his profile and engage the nation's population by providing a single destination for Americans to give input on the priorities for the first year of the incoming administration.

The site had around 134,000 registered users, saw more than 30,000 ideas submitted in the first 96 hours and over 1.4 million votes cast in total. By the end of the election the site had received just shy of 40 million visits. The site's popularity is proof of the power of crowd-sourcing, not just for discussion, but for the generation of ideas.

A similar launch in the UK is Debate2010 web site, which aims to provide a dedicated, central platform for parties and voters to have their say and make a difference to what the next Government will do by harnessing the 'wisdom of the crowd' through the innovation of cloud computing.

This innovative approach, known as Crowdsourcing, is also helping companies to grow "big ears", listen to the public, and create better services and products from the feedback. Using the Internet, it enables thousands of people to collaborate together, to brainstorm ideas, prioritize them and come up with a set of ranked priorities.

For instance Starbucks used the platform from to run a very successful MyStarbucksIdea campaign in which the submission of 42,000 ideas and 375,000 votes helped shape a variety of products and programmes, such as the launch of splash sticks and the modification of its WiFi and customer loyalty system.

Similarly, Dell saw great success tapping crowd-sourcing technology to launch its IdeaStorm and EmployeeStorm platforms to collect feedback and product ideas from its customers and discuss ways of improving the company respectively.

With people possessing a real hunger to feel involved in the decision making process, these benefits can be readily transferred to the public sector.

While they need to be careful in their approach, social networks and sites such as Debate2010 give political parties and the various candidates a real opportunity to use the increased political awareness and the adoption of social media to create a deeper relationship with voters.

All the parties and most MPs have a web site. Many MPs also have blogs, while around one in five are on Twitter, with parties having their own Twitter feeds as well. Importantly, social media must not be viewed as a pure broadcast channel - those involved need to ensure that the communication is two-way, taking on and responding to comments made by voters.

This is particularly true for local MPs, who have a huge opportunity to use tools like Twitter to interact with constituents on a personal level, while getting a good idea for the topics most strongly on the minds of those within their constituency.

So, while some may argue that social media may not make or break a party's chances in the upcoming election, at a time when apathy and mistrust in the political protest has ebbed, its value as a channel for education, awareness, debate and communication is undeniable.