The filmmaker breaks down the rise of the Internet’s most popular streaming platform, and how it got away from its well-meaning creators.
Since its humble beginnings in 2005, YouTube has exploded to become one of the most popular platforms on the Internet. For some, that’s brought them incredible success and exposure in ways mainstream media channels don’t allow, including many marginalized creators who wouldn’t otherwise have an audience. But as its popularity grew, and the profit motive to feed more eyes to ads along with it, its power to do good — see the Arab Spring protests and the Black Lives Matter movement — has become eclipsed by the rise of misinformation, white nationalism, and the alt-right pipeline.
How do we tackle something so central to our lives, yet so potentially poisonous to our sense of civilization? That’s a topic documentarian Alex Winter (Zappa) takes on in his latest, The YouTube Effect, a God’s-eye view of how college students building a dating app in their dorm room inadvertently created the mechanism behind some of America’s darkest (and most inspiring) movements. He speaks with creators and journalists, lawyers, and even some of YouTube’s past and present leaders to paint a wide-ranging picture of YouTube’s gargantuan reach, and the inherent dangers of putting the world’s population at the whims of a craven, algorithmically-driven media platform.
Winter sat down with The Spool for a brief chat about The YouTube Effect, where the doc fits into his broader interest in examining the effect of tech on our sense of community, and whether we should lay the blame on the algorithm, the creators, or capitalism itself.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Obviously, you’ve made quite a few documentaries on many of these deep dark web subcultures, from Napster to the Internet Silk Road. Was there a specific moment where you said, “I want to make one about YouTube now, at this specific point in its lifespan?”
ALEX WINTER: I’ve been tracking the rise of these communities for quite some time, and it goes without saying that YouTube is the largest of these platforms by an order of magnitude at this point. The number one most visited website on the planet is Google, and the second is YouTube. The scale and reach of that platform is almost unimaginable. YouTube is something I’ve been tracking for a long time, and I’ve been wondering why nobody was focusing on it the way we’re focusing on Twitter and Meta. It’s so much larger and has much more significant implications.
So [executive producer] Gale Anne Hurd reached out to me since she was a fan of my tech docs, and had access to some people at YouTube. She asked me if this was something I was ready to tackle, and I was absolutely ready to go. I also had access to a bunch of people at YouTube and Google who were significant, and said, “Between your Rolodex and mine, I think we can get deep inside this story.” It was a question of timing and access, which usually drives most documentaries.
Given where we were politically when I started the doc — which was right before COVID hit — and the insane 2016 election, it felt to me that no one was looking at the implications of where we were on a physical level and the power of these tech platforms. That’s something I felt needed to be examined.
You approach YouTube from these two distinct poles from beginning to end — at the start, it feels like this aspirational rags-to-riches story, both for its creators and the marginalized voices who suddenly find success. Then you get into the rise of alt-right disinformation and the corrosive nature of YouTube on our politics. Was it a struggle to merge those two halves of the discussion?
I worked out a very specific, painstaking structure to take the audience on the same ride the creators of YouTube went on. Here’s this idea that, like all giant tech platforms, comes out of a cheeseball dating idea, or half-assed misogynist money grab [Hotornot.com]. Then it’s cute cat videos and influencers who are having fun, and we can monetize it. The rise of this company, and the seismic changes it provoked, was a shock to everybody inside and outside the tech community.
I wanted to give the audience an understanding that the tech sector folks are people too. Sure, there are monsters there — I think what Elon Musk is doing with Twitter is pretty outwardly evil, I think Peter Thiel is pretty outwardly nefarious. But I don’t think Google is. They built this beast, and the thing got away from them. I wanted the audience to be jarred in the same way I felt someone within that company would have been. Like, holy shit, what? That was not intentional. I didn’t want to create a blase chronology of “now the bad stuff’s coming,” because this was what the company was until it suddenly wasn’t.
I keep thinking of the interview you had with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and the way she answers questions that could be read as kind of evasive and corporatespeak. What was the experience of interviewing her? Did you feel like you got a level of transparency and openness with some of these thornier questions?
Look, the interview is what it is. She says what she says, and the audience is going to respond to that the way they do in documentaries. But I do have enormous respect for her; she’s been in this arena for a very long time, and she comes from a brilliant family. She’s not just the YouTube person, really; she was the Google person, the one who drove the purchase of the company in the first place. It was the respect you would have for a creator who is reckoning with her creation. Not that she is the creator of YouTube, but she is one of a few people you could count on your hand who are responsible for the rise of the company. I don’t think she’s a monster, I don’t think she’s nefarious.
I was very interested in training a camera on her face. That’s what I love about documentaries; it didn’t even matter much to me what came out of her mouth. Here’s this person who’s basically Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, who’s strapped to the chairs, right? This thing has grown and what does that look like?
I’d say Steve Chen is similar in that way — a good person, smart, interesting guy, not an unthinking person. He doesn’t have a lot of hubris; he’s not Zuckerberg. But what did this thing before? And for all the good it’s doing, how do you reconcile the negative?
Given the time you spend diving into these alt-right, intellectual dark web communities (Alex Jones, QAnon), could you describe your experience with them and your temperament in navigating such overt ugliness?
I’ve been around the space a very long time, going back to the mid-’80s. Before the web, in the Usenet BBS era. That’s why I have my opinion on the Silk Road: There was a lot of crime and terrible things, but it also had value as a community. It wasn’t one of those libertarian “fuck the man” kind of things; it was real people talking to each other. It’s the good and weird grays of the Internet, where even the good things have shades of illegality to them, or negative moralities to go along with the positive. So by the time I got to this movie, I’d been around those kinds of people for many, many years.
Speaking candidly, as a Jew, I’ve been the target of neo-Nazis, and QAnon is essentially an antisemitic cult at its root. I have a lot of relationships in that space, both on the white-hat and black-hat hacking side. I was concerned about the coalescing of the most negative aspects of the Internet. Gamergate and the Christchurch shooting are the two watershed shifts, where very smart people began to realize how they could mobilize and weaponize what’s otherwise a very unruly, scattered community.
Which brings up a dilemma that you explore in the doc — whether it’s the algorithm driving people down the alt-right pipeline, or whether it’s serving people what they naturally gravitate towards. Do you change the algorithm? Or do you change what people are searching for?
I really don’t think it’s an algorithmic issue at all, it’s a parasocial one. It’s a business model issue, where a publicly traded company using an ad-based model basically monetized the rise of white supremacist terrorism. That ain’t an algorithm problem. That’s a shareholder and profit-motive problem. I have a similar feeling about AI, which is a term I don’t even like using because it doesn’t mean anything.
For the large part, algorithms aren’t used within the system, the way we talk about the algorithm is meaningless. I think it’s intentional, and agenda-based; it creates a kind of fatalism that prevents any regular human person from thinking they can do anything about this. Besides, put their phone and computer down and go outside and lay in the grass, which is just not a viable solution.
I’m really interested in looking at these issues more from an industrial and historical perspective. These have precedent: Compare Google to Standard Oil, or US Steel. Look at YouTube, and compare it to the rise of yellow journalism under Pulitzer. These are human nature issues, not technological ones.
I was really struck by something [YouTuber] Caleb Cain says late in the doc: “If we don’t solve this problem, we’re going to lose what it means to be human.” How does that quote hit you?
What I like about that quote is that, on its face, it seems outrageously hyperbolic. But I think all of us fear the collision of advances in technology, the rise in global population, the connection and flattening of that population by way of the Internet, and the escalation of capitalist processes that are causing climate change and income inequality, and overpopulation. There’s a baseline existential dread that people have about humanity’s future. What’s our role? What even is a good human? Can we be one within the systems we’ve created?
Like with Caleb’s quote, at the end, we show how we’ve belted the planet with cable. We’re connecting people, but at what cost and to what end? It’s not a grim “tech is bad” thing; that’s not how I feel. It’s a human question of what we’re driving towards, and whether we’re driving with the right tools.
The YouTube Effect is currently playing in select theaters, and comes to the Music Box Theater in Chicago starting July 14th, with a special preview screening on July 12th, with Winter in attendance for a post-film Q&A. Get tickets here.