I spent the past week in freezing wet Berlin, helping judge the Best of the Blogs awards once again, an international competition run by the German public media outlet, Deutsche Welle (DW). There were some surprising winners, some heated arguments among the judges flown in from around the world, but overall a good set of winners who rose above the millions of existing blogs.
One big question is how the winners are actually chosen. There is an open nominating process where anyone can go online to nominate a blog, as long as it is in one of the 10 languages covered (English, German, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Dutch, Persian, French, Arabic, Chinese). Then the judges and DW narrow down the field to 10 finalists in the 10 language categories as well as Best Weblog overall, Best Podcast, Best Videoblog, Blogwurst (for wacky blog) and Reporters Without Borders Award (for freedom of speech).
Then the various judges come together in Berlin to vote on overall winners in each category. Separately, the public gets to vote on their own winners, though they don’t get the glory or prizes that the jury awards bring. After all the voting, there was an awards ceremony in Berlin’s swanky Museum fÃÂ¼r Kommunikation.
Similar to last year’s judging, there were some interesting international dynamics at play when you bring people together from so many cultures to make difficult decisions. Rather than hash out every detail behind the scenes, I’ve compiled a list here of the lessons I learned at this year’s BOBs:
1. The Cold War dynamic lives on. The Iron Curtain might have fallen right in Berlin, but that doesn’t mean old rivalries have ended. When judging between blogs from various languages, an interesting interplay happened, especially with the Best Weblog overall award (kind of the grand prize). As Chinese judge Michael Anti told me during a break, “it seems like the Russians take one side, the Americans take another side, and everyone else tries to pick sides.”
That was evident most in the Russian support for the eloquent black-and-white photoblog from Belarus, Foto-Mania, which eventually won out over the American entry, TechPresident, a cross-partisan group blog covering the way technology is being used by presidential candidates. On one side is a 23-year-old journalist showing the stark reality of life in a sometimes crumbling Minsk, while on the other is a group of political advisors rating campaign websites. Both I think are noteworthy, world-changing blogs, and the final decision in favor of Foto-Mania was razor-thin.
Perhaps one of the most important factors that helped the Russian bloc was its leader, Anton Nossik, a popular blogger who eloquently described each blog nominated. While Nossik was able to win favor among various judges, he was also engaged in text-messaging people while on stage during the awards ceremony — an embarrassing faux pas. [UPDATE: In comments below, Nossik says he was not text-messaging people but actually live-blogging the awards on stage.]
2. America remains influential despite anti-American sentiments. I was joking with fellow American judge Andrew Baron that we might need to wear those apology T-shirts saying that we hadn’t voted for President Bush. While an American blog from Sunlight Foundation won Best Weblog overall last year, it seemed doubtful the U.S. could pull off the trick again this year. But there was still a thread of American influence, whether is was a Persian videoblog about Iranians living in Los Angeles or a Dutch version of Huffington Post. Plus, there were two finalists — one in Persian and one in Portuguese — that were written by people living in Washington, DC.
Politically, people in other countries might not be fond of the U.S., but they still like to emulate and discuss our culture.
3. A universal message counts. There are a few difficulties in trying to judge blogs in 10 different languages. Most judges couldn’t understand the blogs in other languages so had to depend on other judges to explain what they said. There was also the apples-to-oranges decisions among blogs that might be driven by a single personality, might be showing off design, or helping to raise money for a cause. How to decide among them?
What I noticed was that winning blogs often had a universal message that could transcend language and culture. Foto-Mania spoke with pictures. Alive in Baghdad showed life in Iraq via video shot by locals. Valour-IT helped raise money to give laptops with voice-recognition software to wounded American soldiers. These are blogs that are changing the world by showing us something different, crossing boundaries and setting an example for others to follow. The language barrier just didn’t matter in those cases.
4. You can lead by example when it comes to freedom of speech. When I nominated the English-language blog by Jotman for the Reporters Without Borders award, I wondered whether it would have a chance. It is written by an anonymous Westerner who lives in Bangkok, Thailand, who has written first-hand accounts of the Thai coup in 2006 and the Burmese protests and crackdown in 2007. But I figured he was not someone who had to worry about freedom of speech, as he was not Burmese nor Thai, and he probably didn’t grow up under a dictatorship that was censoring the media.
I further figured that a Chinese or Persian blogger would probably do better to get this award as they were under political pressure and could face jail time just for writing on their blog. But I figured wrong. Jotman ended up winning the award because he was setting an example for others who might find themselves in a dangerous situation, with a government cutting off Internet access, media access, and even cell phone access in order to hide atrocities.
Jotman used the tools of a citizen journalist — a camera, videocamera, blog and street smarts — to find Burmese monks who were hiding out in safe houses. He asked people to send in first-hand reports, and filed his own. Reporters Without Borders felt that this award might lead others to do the same thing, emulating Jotman’s pluck in such difficult circumstances.
5. The world (outside the U.S.) cares about the BOBs. How much do they care? Last year, a Russian blogger exhorted his readers to go online and vote as much as possible to help a Russian nominee best a Brazilian blog as retribution for a World Cup soccer loss. This year, hackers broke into the online voting to try to tilt the competition. Yet most Americans — and even American bloggers — have no idea what the BOBs are, and English-language blogs received the second-lowest blog nominations out of all the languages represented.
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