Alex Winter’s cautionary documentary is well-made but preaching to the choir.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Early in Alex Winter’s finely made and firmly inessential documentary The YouTube Effect, the edit takes the form of a firehose montage of the greatest hits of the nearly two decade old title video platform. The most striking edit places the viral phenomenon (and eventual NFT) Charlie Bit My Finger next to scattered footage of The Arab Spring, the global social media-mobilized revolution(s) from the 2010s. Despite a nearly boundless distance between these two subjects, The YouTube Effect pinballs back and forth between these two arenas of cultural influence, blurring the lines with a linearity that feels unsuited to a timeline in constant flux.
In purely quantifiable terms, The YouTube Effect covers a wide breadth of issues that address the platform’s effects – topics like internal conflicts from its frontline successes like Anthony Padilla, the former co-founder of Smosh, to rehabilitated indoctrinated figures like Caleb Cain who have spoken extensively about climbing out of a rabbit hole of reactionary politics. These accounts emerge from galvanizing contexts, but the presentation rarely begins to match the disruptive nature of its subject matter. There’s little wasted time, and also few avenues to demonstrate the mutative qualities of YouTube beyond its capabilities to radicalize or enable making a living.
As a piece of filmmaking, The YouTube Effect is flat; a linear journey through YouTube’s ascent and the touchstones of that history. An account that’s stomach-churning in its specificities and a reminder of its ongoing relevance but not for any filmmaking reason, it feels uninterested in emulating or communicating the singularity of YouTube that made it feel so utterly new and undefinable beyond its staggering on-paper data. Never mind the strictly analytic and anecdotal approach to its central focus, the algorithm, and the separate trance-inducing sensations.
Arranged with rhythmic stop-gaps around the talking head interviews, the accompanying footage is jarringly literal, aligning The YouTube Effect in the Davis Guggenheim-style of classroom-approved info dump documentaries. Well-researched non-fiction filmmaking with a greater helping of entertainment than edutainment but palatable or unchallenging in any of its talking points or stressed angles. It’s a designation that’s only underlined by the me-too banality of composer Paul Haslinger’s dated cosplay of The Social Network score.
[F]inely made and firmly inessential…
Even the selection of experts feels like it’s running through a checklist. It’s nice to have a representative from Google (former Google CEO Susan Wojcicki) but even her most involved answers about Google’s liability in cases with YouTube feel like artful PR dodges rather than any kind of human or corporate insight. Conversely, someone like internet abuse lawyer Carrie Goldberg represents the anti-corporate angle as she discusses her case experiences with the dehumanization of YouTube’s content. Namely, Andy Parker who has implored Google to remove the footage of his reporter daughter being shot on camera.
Disparate as they are in beliefs, these three perspectives – Goldberg, Parker, and Wojcicki – converge within the structure of the film as a set of arguments for and against increased regulation for these capabilities. Natalie Wynn is just as important in these discussions, as her Contrapoints channel could be characterized as a fusion of philosophy, performance art, and a pinch of the comedic taboo to deliver her diffuse messaging. It’s a sensibility that’s made her controversial and firstly an advocate for free speech over its deleterious possibilities.
A more involving detour delves into the philosophy of the pint-sized figurehead of the 22 million subscriber channel Ryan’s World and its inauspicious beginnings, as represented by a story about using a green tablecloth as a makeshift green screen. Ryan, specifically, isn’t a particularly interesting talking head, but he’s indicative of the thin membrane between the wholesome, stupid, and horrifying. As someone describes, “the dark web is two clicks away.” It’s a potent quote that also says more about the user experience than the sociological purview of most of the film.
This review has skimmed over other discussed bullet points like Gamergate, Qanon, and the ways COVID-19 isolation accelerated reactionary inclinations in users but none of them register with much oomph – an admittedly tired sentiment expressed here. But it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for a documentary that feels as pat in its CTA as its own thesis.
The YouTube Effect is now playing in select theaters.