My blog: Reviewing 2011, Previewing 2012
Jan 1, 2012

My blog: Reviewing 2011, Previewing 2012

Following in the custom of New Years, I take a look at the past year for this blog and set some goals for the coming year. Almost necessarily, this results in something of a broader look at blogging in general, webpage design, and my place in the broader blogosphere and political arena.

Technically, this blog is a little over two years old. However, regular posting didn't start until September 2010 and so this is more of a review of the last 16 months opposed to the last 12 months. Since that time, I have written over 250 posts usually posting every two or three days; most posts are over a thousand words. That is, it has successfully become a legitimate political blog offering regular, in depth content on a range of subjects.

Stats: 
While my original motivations, as I will talk about shortly, were largely personal, there has been some success in getting attention and an audience. The blog has about 50,000 views since inception, and has been steadily rising each month. Since I started using Google Analytics back in October to provide better traffic data, there have been a couple hundred unique visitors who have visited the blog more than fifty times, as in relatively regular readers. Perhaps partly due to the redesign of the blog, various metrics for engagement (commenting, linking on social media, pageviews per visit, returning visitors, time per visit, etc) have all been increasing. While I am not there yet, I would hope to increase the size and depth of my audience, perhaps eventually getting to the point of having something of a community of readers who are engaged in the blog.

The best traffic, such as I can tell, comes from blog aggregators and social media. These are people who are aiming to read political stories (from places like progressivebloggers.ca or #cdnpoli on twitter), see my stories amongst the crowd and then read them. They are the people most likely to leave comments or spend some time on the site. However, a majority of my traffic still comes from Google, owing to having lots of text, update regularly, with good SEO (something that blogger innately does very poorly), and this traffic tends to be much poorer.

Why this blog?
When I started this blog, I never wrote a post that really identified why I was writing this blog, what I thought it might entail, and what I hoped it would accomplish. That said, I have had a relatively clear idea of my goals, at least at the most general level, which remain broadly unchanged today.
Today, and in the future, the foremost goal of the blog is personal. I enjoy working on the blog. I find that spending the effort to think in some length deeply about subjects, motivated by preparing a blog post, increases the quality of my political thinking. Simply reading and listening to political commentary, without personal cogitation on the issues, is limiting. Having an avenue to express and output ideas is enormously valuable.

My litmus test for topics to be discussed was, and remains, as follows: I aim to say things which I believe society would benefit from if they were more commonly known. Okay, I admit, sometimes I will write about things that I simply find interesting (like this post) but probably have little value. However, the general thrust is to focus on issues that are not covered enough, or not covered as they ought to be, while sometimes ignoring major political topics simply because they are prevalent in society and there is not much value in discussing them further.

While my primary goals are personal, I also maintain limited ambitions as to the social value of blogging. Broadly, I believe that small scale, grass roots, citizen journalism provides high quality content outside of the constraints and biases imposed by mainstream sources. Social media, such as blogging, contributes to the net expression of ideas and their dominance within society. To whatever extent that I contribute to the repetition, strengthening, of creation of ides that may then propagate further in society, then there is value in my blogging.

The importance of a niche:
A significant problem that my blog faces is that of an appropriate niche market. I am interested in and write about a wide range of topics, but am not really an expert in any. I write about both US and Canadian domestic politics (and almost anything that this entails) as well as foreign policy and geopolitics in the middle east. After these three major sections, I take up a host of issues such as religion, media, social issues, or issues from other countries that don't fit exactly into the mold of domestic politics. While omnibus political blogs are still somewhat of a niche and can be popular, many of the best blogs take a much narrower focus and provide very in depth information and commentary on a narrower issue set.

One common niche taken on both sides of the US-Canada border is the snarky political commentary blog. It will often contain posts centered around a news story, video, or quote from a politician that forms the center-piece for a story. Additional commentary from the blogger is largely limited. The main value from such blogs comes as effective information filters that seek out and present these tidbits in the context of the broader political stance of the blogger. Many of the most popular blogs on places like Progressive Bloggers (a Canadian lefty blog aggregator), are of this format.

I am not one of these bloggers, nor do I aim to be. I aim to do longer polemical works that hope to be informative and persuasive. When I comment on news stories, I aim to use them as motivation or examples in a larger point or commentary that I try to establish. And while there is certainly value (and lots of entertainment) in using humour to illustrate politics - particularly in the 'politician X is saying something stupid, isn't that amusing' sense - I seem to desire, at great risk of being pretentious, a somewhat deeper, intellectual analysis.

Choosing topics:
The highest value added topics that I feel I write about on this blog are Middle Eastern geopolitics ones. In many ways this blog really took off after writing a long and extensively researched piece on Afghanistan in August 2010. I believe that geopolitics of the Middle East is interesting, very important given the massive engagement in this region by the West to which we have a moral responsibility to attempt to understand it, and further is poorly understood in the West. However, it is also very hard to write about. It takes a large amounts of reading and research (sometimes several books worth!) before I feel comfortable writing even a single post. The problems are often intractable, it is hard to view things outside of our Western-centric perspectives, data is poor to nonexistent, and access to quality, unbiased information is lacking. The results of putting in a lot of effort into a difficult, poorly understood subject are posts that, in my view, are among the best on this blog. I would like to focus more on these.

The easiest stuff to write about is essentially news commentary on domestic political events in either the US or Canada. Because I have been following domestic politics in these countries for so long, and have heard quite a bit of commentary on most major issues, it becomes pretty easy to offer my own perspectives on my political events that occur. While one certainly can do a lot of in depth analysis, research, and value added content, it is often possible to skip this and do lower value writing without much effort.

I believe the Canadian content is somewhat more important than the US content simply because the US left-leaning political commentary tradition on the internet is really well established. There are innumerable really high quality sources where one can go for a lot of in depth, quality commentary. It is both hard to compete with this and, in terms of the value to spreading memes in society, less value in attempting to compete because the ideas are already out there. In Canada, however, I would posit that the political blogosphere and online political engagement is proportionally smaller and less well developed. This isn't to disparage the phenomenal work that some do, but I think there is both more room and thus more need for the spreading of certain ideas in Canadian politics.

It would be hard to remain motivated to deliver high quality content, and would be somewhat dishonest, should I blog about anything outside of what I am genuinely interested in. Likewise, given that my interests politically are very varied, to cut out an entire topic such as either the US or Canadian specific domestic politics seems limiting, even if few people have the baseline understanding in both US and Canadian politics to know the background for all my posts.

The scope of this blog must, given this, remain as an omnibus, international, political blog.  Changes are thus constrained to changing the frequency, quality, tone, presentation and the like. But it will retain coverage on my wide and ever changing set of political or social interests.

Webpage Design:
From an aesthetics perspectives, there have been many changes to the blog. On the homepage, there are now brief post summaries so someone can quickly glance through recent posts. Along the side and bottom of a post are thumbnail links to related posts. Social media integration has been added in several places. Major topics are listed along the topic which add summaries for that topic and show all posts on that topic when clicked (see Geopolitics and War, for instance). A cloud of topics (labels used two or more times) appears on the right. Images are now used extensively, appearing in the body of posts and are important for the thumbnails in both the main index page and in the related posts areas. The end result has been a blog that looks, in my opinion, among the better ones to be found in political blogspot blogs.

My main goals from the design standpoint were twofold. Firstly, since I write about such a wide range of topics, people would be able to quickly see the range of topics and have easy access to viewing whatever they may be most interested in. Presumably, this will increase engagement metrics with the blog. Secondly, since my posts tend to be quite long, there is a wall of text effect that can cause reader fatigue. The use of images in the post, the use of holding sub-headings through the post, the breaking up of longer posts into multiple posts, and having pictures and other content in the margins surrounding the posts, all serve to break up the body of text and make it more easily engaging from the aesthetics standpoint. A reader would ideally read through an entire post, but if they don't wish too they can now skip down the post to the new bolded headings, look at the picture, or quickly see other posts they may be more interested in opposed to clicking out of the blog.

The skill of writing:
Set to the task of writing, and critically of using writing as a medium for persuasion, the ability to write well becomes increasingly important. While I have written extensively in the colloquial platforms of Internet forums, my university education as a doctoral student in mathematics is not particularly relevant to the often underrated skill of writing. In the past year I have thus dedicated some energy to the task of improving my writing skills. Through being simply cognizant of the use of language by others, such as the great polemicists Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens, and through paying careful attention to my own writing, I believe I have improved considerably.

A critical aspect of writing is the development of one's own voice. This has been, perhaps, the most difficult part of this blog. Having thoughts and opinions on political issues is something I have had for a long time; being able to express these views cogently and persuasively is the tricky part. I look forward to expanding on the progress I have made in being able to write political opinion.

Domain names:
There is an argument to be made to switch domain names and, perhaps, blogging platforms. While I like the alliteration and ironic nature of the title, Progressive Proselytizing, I worry that people are not familiar enough with the word "proselytizing" such that it may be unknown or perhaps come off as pretentious or be taken literally. Not having the .blogspot.com also looks and feels more professional. While I am now fairly happy with the layout and look of the blog, a switch to Wordpress probably would give more opportunities on a formatting side. However, switching domains means all the work I have done to move up in Google Pagerank and have incoming links would be lost. However, this problem only exacerbates itself the longer one waits. So we shall see.

At the end of the day, writing this blog has been very rewarding for me. I hope to continue blogging through 2012 and to increase the quality of my content and writing. And to whatever extent this humble blog can have a minor impact on the ideas and memes that spread throughout society, I will consider it not just rewarding personally but socially valuable. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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