‘The YouTube Effect’ Film Review: Alex Winter Traces the History of the Ubiquitous Website

Tribeca Film Festival 2022: Beauty and horror, algorithms and monetization, free expression and conspiracy theories — they’re all just a click away

The YouTube Effect
Jon Hokanson

In his new film “The YouTube Effect,” Alex Winter (“Zappa”) probably isn’t going to blow too many minds with his assertion that, with the invention of YouTube, society sure has changed. By anyone’s measure, it’s been a tumultuous couple of decades: social upheavals aplenty, media paradigms a-shiftin’, misinformation amassing.

Thankfully, Winter doesn’t stop there. “The YouTube Effect” may be a catalog of very recent history, but it serves the valuable function of connecting the many, seemingly randomly assorted dots into a clear narrative picture. What began, oddly enough, as an idea for a video-knockoff version of the sleazy website “Hot or Not,” where people could share clips and the audience could provide binary feedback (“Hit that ‘Like’ Button!”) ballooned very quickly into a billion-dollar venture purchased by Google.

It’s almost quaint to watch 15-year-old headlines declare Google’s purchase of YouTube to be a financial blunder of epic proportions. It also seems almost innocuous to watch as Google decides to monetize the video platform — since, after all, they’re in the business of making money — and in the process send all of society as we know it on the express elevator to hell.

“The YouTube Effect” spends a little time on the naïve early promise of canny creators making fun videos and sharing them with the world, achieving surprising superstardom based on pluck, personality and a halfway decent internet connection. But once the algorithm kicks in, it’s another story. With YouTube creators now financially incentivized to get clicks — regardless of the quality or respectability of their content — the floodgates opened for gross, cruel, irresponsible content. (Winter’s documentary claims that 10% of the seemingly countless videos on YouTube are conspiracy theories, and if you’ve ever traversed the site for yourself, you’ll 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 unchecked capitalism. For every positive aspect of the platform, like a section dedicated to harmless children’s cartoons for the whole family, there’s a greedy and mean-spirited perversion that’s ruining it for everybody. Those cute cartoons were swiftly parodied in abusive, sexist animated clips that were — thanks to Google’s algorithm, which prioritizes content that gets engagement, regardless of whether you actually wanted to see it — recommended to children right alongside the real, kindhearted deal.

It’s frustrating to see positive outcomes of YouTube like queer representation, Black Lives Matter rallying and the undermining of propagandistic state media get mentioned, then brushed aside quickly because the disasters (apparently) demand more dissemination. Caleb Cain from “Faraday Speaks” describes in detail how a search for videos on mental health quickly becomes an alt-right rabbit hole, targeting people in search of comfort with videos that — like fictional cult leader Tyler Durden in “Fight Club” — seek to manipulate the vulnerable by giving them power fantasies and scapegoats.

Between the alt-right, videos of murders that can’t get taken down despite the protests of the victims’ families, the online abuse and doxing of the GamerGate movement, and the “misinformation apocalypse” that transformed the COVID pandemic from a national crisis into a widespread attack on our shared sense of reality, Winter’s documentary can find little time to talk about 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 blip on Winter’s radar. QAnon is represented by a single interview with a subject whose account is largely secondhand, as he details the nightmare of watching his mother — who, unsurprisingly, isn’t interviewed — descend into a quasi-religious doomsday fervor.

Winter could, no doubt, 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 individuals with strong ties to the platform and even stronger opinions. Anthony Padilla, formerly of Smosh, one of YouTube’s earliest success stories, speaks to the successes of the medium while gradually coming to terms with its flaws. Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints celebrates YouTubers’ ability to work independently of gatekeeping conventional media systems while attempting to use her platform for positive social ends. Brianna Wu, who endured death threats and doxing during GamerGate, speaks eloquently about the hypocrisy of calling YouTube a neutral platform since its algorithm directly influences the information being disseminated by the audience.

On the other side of the conversation, Winter gives the most screen time to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who, surprise, defends the company and its practices, pointing out their attempts to curtail the volatility on the platform, although her counterarguments are undermined by, frankly, the fact that this documentary was needed in the first place.

Winter also either didn’t interview or decided not to include commentary from the many conspiracy theorists and alt-right talking heads who profit from the platform, which may be an attempt to put his money where his mouth is. How could one argue for the responsible de-platforming of extremist views if you participated in giving them yet another platform?

By the time “The YouTube Effect” wraps up, its non-stop deluge of disparate clips from the website forms nearly numbing chaos, like watching an impossibly loud, confused and self-contradictory version of Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera.” Although there is surely enough material, even in YouTube’s short history, for a 12-hour mini-series dedicated 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 — on what really matters.

“The YouTube Effect” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.