Friday, October 30, 2015

Compressing a complicated situation: Making videos that support search

Mohammad Soleymani asked me to make a video for ASM 2015, the Workshop on Affect and Sentiment in Multimedia, held at ACM Multimedia 2015 on 30 October in Brisbane, Australia. He wanted to present during the workshop the view of different disciplines outside of computer science on sentiment. Since my PhD is in linguistics (semantics/syntax interface), I was the natural choice for "The Linguist". The results of my efforts was a video entitled "A Linguist Talks about Sentiment".

In this post, I briefly discuss my thoughts upon making this video. I wanted to give viewers with no linguistics background the confidence they needed in order to attempt to understand semantics, as it is studied by linguists, and leverage these insights in their work. Ultimately, such a "support for search" video has the goal of addressing people starting with the background that they already have, and giving them just enough knowledge in order to support them in searching for more information themselves.

Mohammad gave me four minutes of time for the video, and I pushed it beyond the limit: the final video runs over six minutes. I realized that what I needed to do is not to convey all possible relevant information, but rather show where a complicated situation is hiding behind something that might seem at first glance simple. The effect of the video is to convince the viewer that its worth searching for more information on linguistics, and giving just enough terminology to support that search.

My original motivation to make the video, was a strong position that I hold: At one level, I agree that anyone can study anything that they want. However, without a precisely formulated, well-grounded definition of what we are studying we are in danger of leaving vast areas of the problem unexplored, and prematurely declare the challenge a solved problem.

After making this video, I realized that one can consider "support for search" videos a new genre of videos. These videos allow people get their foot in the door, and provide the basis for search. A good support-for-search video needs to address specific viewer segments "where they are", i.e., given their current background knowledge. It must simplify the material without putting people off on completely the wrong track. Finally, it must admit this simplification, so that viewers realize that there is more to the story.

When I re-watched my video after the workshop, I found a couple places that make me cringe. Would a fellow linguist accept these simplifications, or did they distort too much? I make no mention of the large range of different psychological verbs, or the difference between syntactic and semantic roles. I put a lot of emphasis on the places that I myself have noticed that people fail to understand. On the whole, the goal is that the video allows the viewer to go from a state of being overwhelmed by a complex topic to having those handholds necessary in order to formulate information needs and support search.

Are "support for search" videos a new genre on the rise? If this "genre" is indeed a trend, it is a welcome one.

Recently browsing, I hit on a video entitled "Iraq Explained -- ISIS, Syria and War":

This video assumes of the reader a particular background knowledge (little) and focuses on introducing the major players and a broad sketch of the dynamics. There are points in the video where I find myself saying "Well, OK" (choice of music gives the impression of things happening with a sense of purpose that I do not remember at the time). This video is clearly a "support for search" video since it ends with the following information:

"We did our best to compress a complicated situation in a very short video, so please don’t be mad that we had to simplify things. There is sooo much stuff that we couldn’t talk about in the detail it deserved…But if you didn’t know much about the situation this video hopefully helps making researching easier."

On the whole, the video succeeds in the goal of giving viewers the information that they need to start sorting out a complicated situation. It gives them the picture on what they don't yet understand, in order that they can the start looking for more information.