The Digital Intersection Without a Traffic Light: Alex Winter discusses his latest documentary, which examines the monolithic power of YouTube.

AuthorRoberts, Zach D.

Filmmaker and actor Alex Winter's latest documentary film, The YouTube Effect, delves into how YouTube, its parent company, Google, and the public need to come to terms with its far-reaching influence on society. It does this quite subtly by speaking with the people who know the site best--its founders and content creators. Winter tells The Progressive that he did not want anyone on camera that "wasn't embedded in the YouTube machine somehow."

Winter speaks to content creators who have achieved Hollywood-level stardom--although you may not know them unless you are in their demographic. Ryan Kaji, of Ryan's World fame, is an eleven-year-old with 33.6 million YouTube subscribers. Anthony Padilla was the co-creator of the Smosh channel, which had twenty-five million subscribers and over ten billion video views. (Padilla left Smosh in 2017.)

The influence and reach of these channels, especially with kids and young adults, is undeniable. But even as someone who covers online content for a living, I had never heard of them. Both are noncontroversial figures in the YouTube world, but there are many more on the site that create edgy content for views--and millions of dollars in advertising revenue. For some creators, that means becoming a gateway to the alt-right pipeline.

For years, YouTube's algorithm pushed videos to viewers that it believed they would like, based on videos they had previously watched, which usually meant ones with a large amount of interaction and controversy. This would lead people from Joe Rogan to Jordan Peterson, for example, and then to someone like white supremacist Stefan Molyneux.

The film speaks to the wider issue of online polarization and the effect of social media on all of us.

YouTube is here to stay, so we will have to figure out how to deal with it. The YouTube Effect is an important documentary about a problem that so many of us seem to hope will resolve on its own. Spoiler alert: It won't.

Q: The film builds slowly, almost sneaking up on the viewer with its message. You could have made a film that trashed YouTube, but you decided to have a real conversation instead. Tell us about that choice.

Alex Winter: In my experience, there are real faces behind these types of companies. It's not like you don't have these larger-than-life tech villains or heroes, but mostly you don't. Mostly they are just people. You have nuanced people who are largely trying to do something interesting, or good, or make money.


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