A person's finger above a YouTube app icon.

Runrun2/Shutterstock (Licensed)

Exploring ‘The YouTube Effect’ 

Society today is recovering from the YouTube effect itself.


Ramon Ramirez


Posted on Jul 16, 2023   Updated on Jul 17, 2023, 7:19 am CDT

This report first appeared in web_crawlr, the Daily Dot’s newsletter. If you want to read stories like this before everyone else, sign up for the newsletter here.

Yes, Alex Winter regularly uses YouTube. That’s not the point of the director, writer, and actor’s stunning new documentary, TheYouTube Effect.

It’s that society today is recovering from the YouTube effect itself. YouTube is at its core an apolitical monolith responsible for billions of weekly views that is designed to maximize profits at all costs. The effect explored on-screen shows a world struggling to grapple with, and catch up to, the platform’s insatiable appetite—to its default, capitalistic setting.

“Good, you guys are still here,” Winter told patrons at the Alamo Drafthouse Tuesday night in Austin, Texas after the screening. That’s the only concern with the film, which opens this week: It is a brutal eras tour through recent, sordid history; one you likely remember and may not be ready to revisit. What followed was a thoughtful conversation where this reporter interviewed Winter for 30 minutes about his relationship with Google as a parent, journalist, filmmaker, and concerned citizen.

Through interviews with former YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, home-grown YouTube stars who survived the wars for attention and used their platforms to educate like Smosh’s Anthony Padilla, a reformed alt-right viewer, and heroes of the era such as GamerGate target Brianna Wu, a comprehensive and barreling history unfolds. Winter doesn’t tip the philosophical scales as a documentarian, but some conclusions are obvious.

YouTube has threatened democracy; allowed hate-speech to facilitate unique and targeted violence; raised a generation that harbors parasocial relationships with YouTubers, one powerful enough to radicalize impressionable teens; and made parents play whack-a-mole with their toddlers’ viewing habits. And just because a bunch of low-level right-wingers were jailed after Jan. 6 and booted off YouTube, Winter argued in Austin, conditions are ripe for another dangerous election year

Beforehand, we grabbed Tex-Mex. The traditional stuff: Gooey enchiladas, crispy chips and salsa, a singular puffy taco awkwardly served before the rest of your rice-and-beans adorned plate arrives. Turns out Winter is a smoked meats enthusiast who can name-check the Lockhart, Texas barbeque staples like a fanboy naming his favorite ball team’s starting lineup. He thinks like a bullpen reporter, too. I told him this later via email as a compliment, and I mean that he can rattle off court cases and ongoing, interconnected internet culture topics like someone heads-down and neck-deep into their coverage beat.

So chatter about Section 230, the liability shield that protects websites from the ridiculous things that their users say in the comments sections, bled into a convo about fallout from the Google v. Gonzalez case, which led to an aside about the Silk Road trial. A thread about the pandemic led to concerns about how Winter, the father, let his son use Discord during COVID lockdowns. We discussed YouTube as it became a weapon for radicalized video game enthusiasts in 2014 and why he chose to omit giving very much screen time to the longtime, most-followed YouTuber PewDiePie.

A good beat reporter knows a web of philosophy is regularly influencing every story as they parse out one news brief after another. It makes Winter one of the most classically journalistic filmmakers in Hollywood.

We crawl the web so you don’t have to.
Sign up for the Daily Dot newsletter to get the best and worst of the internet in your inbox every day.
Share this article
*First Published: Jul 16, 2023, 11:21 am CDT