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Last Friday, I was sitting in a conference room on the 37th Floor of the Park Inn in Berlin, Germany, along with people from Brazil, Holland, Spain, France, Russia, Germany, China and other far-flung places. We had all been flown into town by German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle to be jury members to decide the winners of the annual Best of the Blogs (The BOBs) awards.

So there we were, jet-lagged and sometimes struggling to understand each other’s accented English, arrayed around a large U-shaped glass table as though we were negotiating a peace treaty in the Middle East. If only it were that easy. Instead we had to decide what the best weblogs in the world would be for 2006, each of us trying to explain to the others why our language’s blogs were worthy. Nominated blogs were in English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Persian, Dutch, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and German — not to mention podcasts that have audio or video in those languages.

The competition started a couple months back when the public was asked to nominate blogs for awards. Then the judges had to narrow down those 5,500 nominees to 10 finalists in each category: Best Weblog (overall winner), Best Corporate Weblog, Reporters Without Borders Award (for freedom of speech), Blogwurst (for funny ones), and Best Weblog for each language. Now came the tricky part, as the judges met in Berlin to vote on winners for each category, as well as the top dog, Best Weblog in the world.

Very early on, we ran into difficulties trying to define what a “Corporate Weblog” is. Many judges were hung up on the fact that a weblog ran advertising or made money, somehow disqualifying them for any award outside of the Best Corporate Weblog award. My take was that many U.S.-based weblogs that were successful would be considered “corporate” because they run ads and make money, and would be knocked out of the competition.

Eventually, with the folks from Deutsche Welle moderating, we came up with a better definition for “corporate blog”: a blog where the writer is paid by an outside company, usually a media company, and works for them. That eliminated blogs that were part of newspaper, magazine or broadcaster websites. The Huffington Post, one of the English-language finalists, was deemed too commercial and corporate by some judges, even though Arriana Huffington built it as an independent company.

Finding Consensus

As we went through the various language finalists, the judges would present their two favorites and the other judges would ask them questions about the blogs. The obvious problem is that none of us spoke those languages, so we had to depend on the judges for each particular language to tell us more about them. Things became even more complicated in the general categories, where blogs in different languages competed for awards against each other.

Was American comic video podcaster Ze Frank better than a Brazilian woman known as Wireless Girl? Was a German cartoonist known as Lisa Neun better than an Iranian Jew living in Israel?

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In many cases, judging winners was like comparing apples to oranges as it was difficult to decide between the serious and light-hearted, the socially conscious or literary entries. However, we did reach consensus pretty easily around the “Blogwurst” winner when most of us were laughing so hard at the look-alike photos of Persian blogger Aref-Adib (including the comparison above of Henry Kissinger with hardline Iranian cleric Sadegh Khalkhali).

A lot of times, the winning blog depended on a good presentation (in English, of course) by the judge in charge of that language’s nominees. While that should have given me an advantage — being one of the two English language judges (the other, Lisa Stone, didn’t make the trip) — there was also the disadvantage of having blog nominees that others could read and criticize. Not to mention the default anti-American bias by any international group of judges at this point in time. Perhaps those advantages and disadvantages cancelled each other out somehow for me.

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In the end, a U.S.-based blog from the Sunlight Foundation won the Best Weblog award — but it’s a blog that really shows the evolution of the format. Rather than simply being a political blog with one person ranting against the establishment, Sunlight’s group blog has been innovative in promoting government transparency and fighting corruption by involving its audience in projects like the Punchclock Campaign (getting elected representatives to put their schedule online) and Exposing Earmarks (finding the source of funding for earmarks in bills).

Guest blogger Mark Tapscott wrote at MediaShift about the eventual product of the Exposing Earmarks campaign, which had brought bloggers together from liberal and conservative ideologies: a new law in Congress, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, that creates an online database of earmarks for each bill.

Russian Controversy

Back at the awards judging, consensus was nice to reach at times, but there was also the inevitable charges of bias and unfair voting. While the jury was deciding on winners in Berlin, there was also an online vote going on for winners of the User Prizes. A Russian man, Ivan Govnov, wrote emails to the jury members telling us that a Russian blogger with alleged connections to the “shadow economy” in that country was exhorting people to vote for the Russian blog.

“He encourages the Russian bloggers to ‘beat Brazilians,’” Govnov wrote. “The subject of his post could be loosely translated as a ‘match-up against Brazil,’ alluding to a chance to retaliate against Brazil’s superiority in soccer… Just hours after [the blogger] launched his unfair advertising campaign, the number of votes for the Russian blog has more than doubled, shooting up to 4,300 votes! I am Russian myself and I certainly support my country. I just want my fellow Russian bloggers to play fair without resorting to such dirty tricks… Ironically, thousands of people who supported this campaign and voted for the Russian weblog have never heard of it before.”

What these people probably failed to realize in all the hubbub and controversy was that the online vote was more of a sideshow to the juried selection — the thing that really sets The BOBs apart from other popular blog awards. And even more ironically, the Brazilian judge, Sonia Francine, is also a soccer commentator for ESPN Brazil. Plus, the jury, which didn’t know about this Russian controversy until after the judging was over, selected a Russian blog about soccer as the winner of the Best Corporate Weblog.

In the end, I think we as a jury picked some great blogs to win the awards. It was a fascinating process, and it shows just how far blogs have gone from their geeky, American beginnings to become a much more highly evolved form of communication in so many languages around the world.

What do you think of the winning blogs? Can you think of a way to improve the judging process for The BOBs? Share your thoughts in the comments below.