In his new movie “The YouTube Effect,” Alex Winter (“Zappa”) probably won’t wow too many people with his claim that with the invention of YouTube, society has certainly changed. By any measure, these two decades have been tumultuous: social upheavals aplenty, media paradigms shifting, misinformation piling up.
Fortunately, winter does not stop there. The “YouTube Effect” may be a catalog of very recent history, but it serves the valuable function of connecting the many seemingly random dots into a clear narrative picture. What started, oddly enough, as an idea for a video version of the sordid “Hot or Not” website, where people could share clips and the public could provide binary comments (“Hit the ‘Like’ button “!”) exploded very quickly into a billion-dollar company bought by Google.
It’s almost quaint to see 15-year-old headlines declaring that Google’s purchase of YouTube was a financial mistake of epic proportions. It also seems almost innocuous to watch Google decide to monetize the video platform – because, after all, they’re in the business of money – and in the process send the whole company as we know it into the dark. express elevator to hell.
“The YouTube Effect” spends some time on savvy creators’ naive promise to make fun videos and share them with the world, achieving surprising superstardom based on grit, personality, and a half-decent internet connection. But once the algorithm is launched, it’s a different story. With YouTube creators now financially incentivized to get clicks — no matter how good or respectable their content is — the floodgates have opened up for rude, cruel, and irresponsible content. (Winter’s documentary claims that 10% of the seemingly countless videos on YouTube are conspiracy theories, and if you’ve ever browsed the site for yourself, you’d probably think that number seems low.)
Winter’s film rarely comes out and says it, but “The YouTube Effect” is, more than anything else, an examination of the dangers of runaway capitalism. For every positive aspect of the platform, such as a section dedicated to harmless children’s cartoons for the whole family, there is a greedy and petty perversion that spoils it for everyone. These cute cartoons were quickly parodied in abusive and sexist animated clips that were – thanks to Google’s algorithm, which prioritizes content that drives engagement, whether you want to see it or not – recommended for kids. alongside the benevolent real deal.
It’s frustrating to see positive YouTube outcomes such as queer representation, Black Lives Matter rallying, and the weakening of propagandistic state media being mentioned and then quickly dismissed because disasters (seemingly) demand more outreach. Caleb Cain of “Faraday Speaks” details how a search for mental health videos quickly becomes an alt-right rabbit hole, targeting people looking for comfort with videos that – like fictional cult leader Tyler Durden in “Fight Club” – seek to manipulate the most vulnerable by giving them power fantasies and scapegoats.
Between the alt-right, videos of murders that cannot be deleted despite protests from victims’ families, online abuse and doxing from the GamerGate movement, and the “misinformation apocalypse” that has transformed the pandemic of COVID from a national crisis into a widespread assault on our common sense of reality, Winter’s documentary may find little time to address issues that, in a saner world, would have been more than enough to justify the creation of “The YouTube Effect”. Occupy Wall Street is a dot on Winter’s radar. QAnon is represented by a single interview with a subject whose narrative is largely second-hand, as it details the nightmare of seeing his mother — who, unsurprisingly, is not interviewed — descend into quasi-religious apocalyptic fervor.
Winter undoubtedly could have interviewed an absurd number of YouTube creators, tech giants and Google executives for his film, but he largely focuses on a small number of people with deep ties to the platform and even stronger opinions. Anthony Padilla, formerly of Smosh, one of YouTube’s early success stories, talks about the medium’s successes while gradually coming to terms with its flaws. ContraPoints’ Natalie Wynn celebrates YouTubers’ ability to work independently of conventional media systems while trying to use her platform for positive social purposes. Brianna Wu, who suffered death threats and doxing during GamerGate, speaks eloquently about the hypocrisy of calling YouTube a neutral platform since its algorithm directly influences what information the public puts out.
On the other side of the conversation, Winter gives the most screen time to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who, surprisingly, defends the company and its practices, highlighting their attempts to reduce volatility on the platform, though his counter-arguments are undermined by, frankly, the fact that this documentary was needed in the first place.
Winter also hasn’t interviewed or decided not to include commentary from the many conspiracy theorists and alt-right talking heads profiting from the platform, which may be an attempt to put his money where his mouth is. find his mouth. How could anyone advocate for the responsible de-platforming of extremist views if you were involved in giving them yet another platform?
As “The YouTube Effect” wraps up, its non-stop barrage of disparate clips from the website forms an almost numbing chaos, like watching an incredibly loud, confusing, and contradictory version of Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera.” While there’s surely enough material, even in YouTube’s short history, for a 12-hour miniseries devoted to the subject, Winter does an admirable job of cutting through the din and focusing our attention – for at least 99 minutes. , when we’re not watching shorter videos on YouTube – about what really matters.
“The YouTube Effect” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.