The YouTube Effect 2023 Movie Review
Imagine a world without YouTube. It’s not really that hard, since the streaming video platform was only founded in 2005. If it were a human, it would barely be old enough to apply for a credit card, or vote, or buy a lottery ticket – all of which, if used as search terms, would probably bring up thousands of clips. Then again, any search term brings up seemingly infinite possibilities, and its that scale and ubiquity of the video platform, and its impact on our daily lives, that Alex Winter explores in his new documentary, The YouTube Effect.
Winter’s directing career has been eclectic, starting with underground faves like Freaked and then spinning into a delightful run of kids shows and movies for Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. In recent years he’s become a documentarian, but even then there’s an apparent bifurcation. On one hand, there have been his examinations of celebrity, in musical biodoc Zappa and his examination of child actors in Hollywood, Showbiz Kids. On the other hand, there is his obsession with the impact of technology on our lives, starting with 2012’s Downloaded, charting the rise and fall of music sharing site Napster, followed by his true crime drama about Austin’s own internet drug baron Ross Ulbricht in Deep Web, and then Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain, an ebullient (arguably woefully so) look at cryptocurrency.
But what Winter is always fascinated by is the friction between institutions and disruptors – which is arguably what makes The YouTube Effect a change of pace, and closer to his investigative work in The Panama Papers. This time, the disruptor is the institution, in that YouTube is owned by Google, meaning that the world’s largest streaming platform site is run by the world’s biggest search engine. So, Winter asks, what’s YouTube’s real purpose, and what images is it prepared to bring to audiences to fulfill that endgame? Hint: the infuriatingly large number of commercials that precede and interrupt even the shortest videos may be a clue.
The positives of the platform are presented as an upbeat battle against ignorance, with YouTubers like Anthony Padilla (who Winter directed in the much lighter Smosh: The Movie) depicting the benefits of a universally accessible video platform, open to both contributors and viewers. It’s up to less perky analysts, like tech journalist Briana Wu, to explain how the site’s ubiquity has made it a powerful and disseminated organizing tool for dangerous groups, and more worryingly to note that Google is very aware that this is happening.
Yet Winter is always an optimist. While he wisely throws up the red flag that Google, YouTube, and overall parent company Alphabet do not have your best options at heart, he can also be a little Panglosian about the future of technology. That’s a problem that has beset all his tech docs, but arguably less so here. However, like many documentarians trying to wrap their arms around a huge theme and massive topic, some lines of questioning are severed (there is, for example, no mention of international competitors like the French Dailymotion, or China’s Tudou and Youku). Equally, the history is sometimes a little hazy, especially on the early days of streaming video. Such details might inform the core question of how YouTube has grown to such prominence and power, further illuminating the central concern about what it’s doing with that power.
Winter can’t resist the cheering idea that, for all its sins, YouTube has created a new, disseminated knowledge base. However, that core concern about its dangers is what really drives The YouTube Effect, and re-enforces its central finding that it has had an undeniably corrosive effect on our lives, even as we’ve fallen for its steady stream of pablum and bootlegged shows.