It’s hard to believe, but five years ago today, the first-ever post at Justice in Conflict was published. The occasion and anniversary spurred me to reflect on writing at JiC over the last half-decade and to share a bit of the story behind the blog.
I decided to create JiC in late February 2011, during the first year of my PhD in the International Relations Department at the LSE. The push to set up the site came from numerous sources, including a moment of failure. In late 2010, two close friends and I lost an election to become the editor’s of the LSE’s Millennium Journal of International Studies. Our failed bid was to be a blessing in disguise in that it left me with both the time and space to create and maintain the blog. At the same time, my father, Gregory Kersten, an esteemed academic in his own right, had been encouraging me to use my excess energy to create a website. Sometimes, it seems, fathers really do know best. My sister, Marta Kersten, a researcher in image-guided surgery/medical imaging at the McGill University, helped come up with the name of the site. I immediately embraced the idea of calling the blog Justice in Conflict for its double meaning — the pursuit of justice in the midst of active conflict as well as conflicting perspectives on the nature of justice itself.
In creating the blog, I didn’t have any expectations of what I — or the site— could achieve. Of course, I wanted an audience, but I was also largely happy to write for myself. Writing helped me put my thoughts in order — as well as spur new ones. As one American novelist once put it: “I write to know what I think.” Writing on JiC helped me to access, trigger, and string together thoughts and theories that were otherwise obscured or inaccessible.
After it’s launch (if it can even be called that), the blog started to take off rather quickly. Within the first few days, Kevin Jon Heller, whom I did not know at the time but who has since become a close friend, was gracious enough to welcome JiC to the blogosphere on Opinio Juris. I still recall not only my own excitement but the e-mails and comments of people saying: “Did you see? You’re on Opinio Juris!”
With time, more people began subscribing to the site. Today, JiC is closing in on 1.3 million visits and 15,000 subscribers across various platforms. Dozens of both regular and periodic contributors have enriched the discussions and debates we’ve had at JiC (with a special shout-out to Elke Schwarz and Patrick Wegner, both indispensable in the early years of the blog). These are bewildering and humbling numbers and I can’t thank readers for their interest enough.
In subsequent years, there have been other significant achievements for the site. Two stand out: in particular first, my critique of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 documentary that went viral and ultimately garnered the site some 420,000 hits in two days; and second, when a source gave me permission to publish a draft UN Security Council resolution referring Syria to the ICC, making JiC the first and only place where the full text of the referral was available.
Of course, writing takes time and, as I tell anyone who asks for advice in creating a sustainable blog, new content has to be published on a regular basis. Capturing the interest of readers is one thing — maybe even the easy part; retaining their attention over time is another matter altogether. Looking back at the first-ever comment on the site, Xavier Rauscher wrote: “Very nice, Mark. Good luck with this blog. Whatever you do, don’t stop writing!” And he was right. The trick is to never lapse in producing new content. Thus the single achievement I am most proud of is the consistency of new and original material the blog has been able to put out since it was established. On average, JiC has published just under 100 articles per year since its inception.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say the consistency that the blog achieved wouldn’t have been possible without support from my two PhD supervisors, Kirsten Ainley and Mark Hoffman. Not once did they suggest that I put my blogging aside in order to focus on the thesis or more ‘academic’ pursuits. The end result was, perhaps for some, counter-intuitive. Rather than the thesis being delayed, it took less time because of my engagement with the blog; when I did finally submit the thesis, it was well before its due-date. Writing for JiC kept me constantly involved and interested in ongoing developments. I can’t recall a moment during my research when I wasn’t fascinated by what was happening at the ICC and in the world of international criminal justice more broadly. JiC helped me maintain that fascination and also made me feel like a part of that world. Rather act as a distraction from my research and thesis writing, JiC kept me engaged and allowed me to streamline certain arguments that I worked through on the blog. Writing was also something I could always rely on. I take great pleasure and indeed comfort in crafting posts and doing the necessary research for each piece I publish. Writing gives me what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call “flow” — a state of mind so focused that everything else seems to melt away.
I can’t say it enough: JiC has helped me tremendously over the years, both professionally and personally. It doesn’t pay the bills but JiC has opened doors that would otherwise be closed, certainly for a PhD student and junior researcher. Professionally, it helped tremendously in accessing people for interviews — and made for better interviews with practitioners in the field due to their per-existing knowledge of my passion and interest in the field. The accessible content and journalistic style that characterizes the blog opened up opportunities to speak at conferences and events like the Oxford Union as well as in other forms of media. My writing here has been inseparable from the research I have conducted. But, for my career, creating and maintaining JiC has been, hands down, the best extracurricular activity I have taken up.
Of course, not everything has always been rosy. There have been nasty comments on the blog. There have been embarrassing mistakes. More generally, maintaining a website like this takes time and care. It can be an incredible slog when you’re energy is low, when you lack for inspiration, or face difficult situations in your personal life. At the same time, as the blog’s audience grows, the expectations of writing have changed. As time has passed, I have had to work harder to be conscientious and recall those first days of writing at JiC when I didn’t have much of an audience. Doing so helps to ignore the impulse of writing to or for anyone in particular. I consider that to be crucial to the blog’s ability to remain a trusted forum for critical analysis.
The best part of the last five years, has undoubtedly been the people I have met and the conversations I have had as a result of JiC. You, the site’s readers, constantly humble me with your interest and readership and engagement.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart and the tips of my fingers, to every one of you for every moment you have given JiC over the last five years.