Mainstream audiences (especially those of a certain age) know Alex Winter as half of the iconic Bill & Ted, maybe even one of David’s (Kiefer Sutherland) vampire gang from “The Lost Boys” if you know your 80s background players well.
But if you don’t know him as a director of some of those most incisive docos about the modern technology age you’re missing out. After 2018’s “The Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain”, 2015’s “Deep Web” and 2013’s “Downloaded” comes “The YouTube Effect”.
As the name suggests, it’s about the rise of the video sharing giant from its humble beginnings in a proverbial garage, the billion dollar acquisition by Google and everything between and since.
The presence of original co-founder Steve Chen and current CEO Susan Wojcicki doing on-camera interviews might make you think the film is going to be slightly hagiographic, and the first half hour or so indeed takes you on a dotcom era-style roller coaster ride of soaring valuations, mazes of venture capital buzzwords and breakneck growth as YouTube became a byword for online video like Google became for search.
But no credible documentary explaining what YouTube is and what it’s done in the world would be complete without exploring the dark side, and Winter’s first clue is in the film’s title. One of the effects the movie goes on to explore is that millions of people not only have radical, dangerous and downright stupid beliefs and views because of online services like YouTube, they find vindication that bolsters their outlooks, giving dangerous ideas far more endurance than they had in the pre-web world.
Not only that, but the way the algorithms that now run our online lives select for, amplify and focus hatred, high drama, fear and extremism means more angry, lonely and disenfranchised people are drawn into such networks, such beliefs proliferating even wider than they would have otherwise.
One young man talks about his experience falling under the spell of the alt right before he somehow realised how awry his outlook on life had grown before getting himself back on the straight and narrow, meeting Winter’s crew in a hotel and talking at times about how fearful he is for his safety by turning his back on his newfound community.
In another example, the father of TV reporter Allison Parker, who was shot dead live on air in a shocking August 2015 attack, continues a (seemingly fruitless) mission to get YouTube or Google to remove the copies of the shooting that have sprung up all over the service – requests that have fallen on deaf ears because he’s not the copyright holder. He tells the story of his effort while wryly quoting parent company Google’s original motto ‘don’t be evil’.
But nor is The YouTube Effect an anti-conspiracy screed, also featuring people from the newfound community of very influential and wealthy creators who not only make a very good living from their work but in some cases earn enough to make movie stars’ jaws drop – one of them is a kid in Hawaii who makes videos with his family and earns over $20m a year.
At regular points YouTube’s earnings throughout history appear in supertext on the screen, proving that Google’s purchase of the then-still-unprofitable YouTube for $1.65bn in 2006 was worth it by orders of magnitude.
Even without the very human stories of lives and societies irrevocably changed for the worse or better, a cultural movement so huge and powerful can’t help but have an effect on the modern world, and it’s something “The YouTube Effect” appreciates and conveys deftly.