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The YouTube Effect

"Welcome to the internet
Put your cares aside
Here's a tip for straining pasta
Here's a nine-year-old who died."
-- Bo Burnham, "Welcome to the Internet"

"The algorithm is a beast that really can't be tamed once it's been unleashed and it's already been unleashed." In Alex Winter's new documentary "The YouTube Effect," these words—probably not a surprise to anyone at this point—are said by Anthony Padilla, founder of the YouTube channel Smosh, a very successful early adapter of the platform. Padilla is one of the interview subjects in "The YouTube Effect," and he explains how the algorithm works and why it's a huge problem. He's a powerful interview subject because he speaks from the inside. He also speaks against his own interests. He's benefited from YouTube. He was made by YouTube (Smosh launched on YouTube in the prehistoric year 2005). "The YouTube Effect" is a chronicle of extremely recent history and doesn't cover much new ground. If you follow YouTube, big tech, or any controversies surrounding social media, you will be familiar with everything here.

Recent history moves so fast that the now-ancient (i.e., the 1990s) term "24-hour news cycle" takes on an entirely new meaning. The "news" itself is off-road. We are in the whirlwind right now, and it's hard sometimes to get perspective on what the hell is actually going on. Maybe that's the point: if you don't give people time to think, they won't cause problems for you as you lug your money to the bank. To quote Bo Burnham's song again: "It was always the plan / To put the world in your hand." The 21st-century version of bread and circuses.

Winter interviews people from tech, writers who cover tech, as well as the original co-founder Steve Chen. (YouTube's humble beginnings echo all the other startup legends, college dropouts with an idea, setting up in their parents' garage.) Originally designed as a video version of the website "Hot or Not?" (what is it with social media behemoths starting with sleazy little concepts?) YouTube quickly took off into the stratosphere, so much so that even a couple of years later, it was hard to imagine the world without it.

It's only 15 years of time, but so much has happened. Winter picks out some of the major YouTube moments: The Arab Spring, the 2020 protests, the New Zealand mosque shooting (live-streamed), Elliot Rodger, and the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. But YouTube is too vast an eco-system to be summed up by its most high-profile and politically-charged controversies. Winter provides brief flashes of other famous (and sometimes controversial) YouTube figures/events: Shane Dawson, Tana Mongeau, James Charles ... and who can forget Logan Paul's "Japanese Suicide Forest" debacle? These eruptions in the YouTube community are still being discussed by creators on the channel. Winter doesn't really go into these tempests-in-a-teapot, and this is probably a good thing because once you search "James Charles Apology," you will lose hours of your life in a rabbit hole that goes to the center of the earth. I speak from personal experience.

Winter is after the Big Picture: how YouTube's "recommended" algorithm changed the game, our world, and us. Susan Wojcicki, the former CEO of YouTube, is interviewed extensively, and her corporate-speak about the positive "connections" formed between "diverse" groups of people rings false, as does her reassurances of how hard YouTube works to make the community safe. There should be a debate between free speech advocates and those who think protecting people from death threats/doxing/SWAT-ting, etc., is good. There's no reason compromises can't be made. There have been times in the past—the anti-trust laws of the early 20th century, automobile safety, etc.—when regulations were imposed, and it was all for the greater good. This debate needs to happen but not in the current zero-sum atmosphere. Winter includes people who speak to it: a litigator who goes after social media sites for the "harm" they cause (and sometimes catastrophic harm), and Brianna Wu, a tech writer and video game developer who felt the wrath of gamers when she spoke out in support of Zoë Quinn curing so-called GamerGate. These interviews help clarify what is, at times, rather unfocused.

One very interesting interview subject is Caleb Cain, whose humble little YouTube channel blew up when he posted a video called "My Descent into the Alt-Right Pipeline." Suddenly he was on all the news shows, talking about the dangers of YouTube and how the "recommended" algorithm led him by the hand from self-help channels to White Nationalism. Cain speaks eloquently about how quickly and effectively this process worked. He understands how brainwashing works because 1.) It actually happened to him, and 2.) He was able to snap himself out of it.

There's a too-brief diversion into the disturbing world of YouTube Kids. In 2017, James Bridle wrote a piece on Medium called "Something is wrong on the Internet" after a deep dive into YouTube Kids, and it should have been a wake-up call. More could have been made of this truly sinister aspect of the platform—and human nature—in "The YouTube Effect."

I rely on YouTube for research and entertainment purposes. I love the old talk show clips, the music not available on iTunes/Spotify (like Bing Crosby's 1930s recordings!), and television movies from the '80s starring Gena Rowlands, not available anywhere else. I love "React To" channels (made up mostly of Gen Z kids watching classic films for the first time. I highly recommend this wholesome rabbit hole.) But everyone knows how the algorithm works. You watch one video on a controversial subject out of curiosity, and it could be from a valid source, but suddenly, within minutes, your "recommended" nav bar is now filled with similar "content," and you're one click away from a video claiming the earth is flat.

Winter's documentary goes far but maybe not far enough. In her interview, YouTuber Natalie Wynn (aka ContraPoints) observes that YouTube is not "a public forum," but THE public forum and it's owned and operated by two of the biggest corporations in the world. This should make everyone—no matter their political views—at least take a moment to pause and consider the implications.

Now playing in theaters. 

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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