Video Search à la Web

Some months ago, my daughter was doing a literature search on galagos, adorable African primates better known as bush babies. As she was preparing a paper on one species, she emailed me a photo she planned to import into her final document. I suggested she also include a video of these amazing vertical clingers and leapers.

I remember seeing several film clips of their breathtaking treetop acrobatics in a college anthro class, many eons ago. These tiny big-eyed wonders would spring off backwards from a tree trunk in the jungle’s upper canopy. Mid-air, the critters would miraculously swing around so that as they approached the next tree trunk they’d be ready to grab it securely with both arms and legs.

So dramatic was their mode of traveling that even now, decades later, the imagery remains firmly fixed in my mind’s eye. I thought it would similarly impress my daughter and her classmates. Alas, I was informed in vexed frustration: “Mom, I looked but there are no videos of this on the Web.”

Not believing it, I spent the better part of two evenings searching for myself. I could find stills of galagos. Even videos of a bush baby eating out of someone’s hand at a primate center. But videos of these animals sailing from one tree to another? I had to concede defeat. I couldn’t find a video, despite plenty of references to the animals’ vertical-clinging-and-leaping behavior.

Still convinced that motion pix of galago treetop locomotion must exist on the Web — after all, everything’s on the Web — I sat in on a session about “how people find videos,” this afternoon, at the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, here in Pittsburgh. I figured I’d pick up some good tips. After all, the morning’s sessions on heuristics and metadata indexing of files were delivered by what appeared to be techno-wonks.

Unfortunately for me, the video talks described quantitatively — and, at times, in excruciating detail — what average Web users do to locate videos on music, hair-styling techniques, sports, and humor. Most subjects were students and young adults in Glasgow or half a world away in Hamilton, New Zealand. Generally fumbling their way through the web, these volunteers sometimes found what they wanted. Other times, like me, they failed.

A team from the University of North Carolina compared searches for political videos via YouTube, blogs, or a combination of both. Bottom line: Putting a few search terms into the YouTube browser did pretty well — and was about as likely to deliver what you wanted as also searching blogs via Technorati and Google Blog. By comparison, hunting only via the blog browsers delivered a lot of chaff.

The problem, as everyone remarked, traces back to a paucity of those pesky metadata, indexing terms and details that have been linked to videos or other digital files. In some cases, keying in Obama Girl or “spider pig” may be enough to get you just the clip you desire. Other times, the most reasonable terms give you gazillions of hits to wade through, or just a lot of chaff.

In any case, when I got back to my hotel room today, I searched yet again for a vertical-clinging-and-leaping bush baby. In vain.

If any of you know where to find such a video, please send along the URL. I’d still like to share it with my daughter — and the rest of you.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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