Tube Stake

People waste entirely too much time on the internet. Now that that’s been agreed upon, along comes Alex Winter’s documentary, The YouTube Effect, to put the remainder of the situation in perspective. Or not.

Writer-director Winter’s fact-filled YouTube exposé, co-produced by Gale Ann Hurd of The Terminator-Aliens-Armageddon fame, devotes itself to the second-most-visited website in the world. While this documentary brings the audience up to date on such things as net worths and market valuations, it should have enlisted one or two psychologists or cultural commentators as talking heads—as opposed to the noted philosopher Rush Limbaugh.

Winter certainly has access.

YouTube co-founder Steve Chen’s onscreen war stories take up a considerable percentage of the doc’s running time. Born in Taiwan and educated at the University of Illinois, he dropped out to move to Silicon Valley where he worked for PayPal, hooked up with all-nighter tech-nerd buddies Jawed Karim and Chad Hurley, and made a pile catering to the whims of bored students. Their collective brainstorm: share videos online.

The $350 billion question Chen and his business partners asked themselves was: What kind of videos do people want? Any college kid or teenybopper could have told them. Stupid pet tricks, stupid people tricks, last year’s movies and TV shows, things an influencer likes, K-pop, Justin Bieber, how to make your own Glock 19, murders, political silliness of all types and that golden mean of content providers, “controlled chaos.” To name but a few.

YouTube demonstrates what happens when the latest technology meets the same old dumb ideas the consumer public always comes up with; most often it’s a thought from the “Write a letter, feel better” file. YouTube’s phrase for it was “Share something.” Uh-huh. The change-the-world impetus, a Steve Jobs obsession, also played into the original Tubers’ game plan. No TV networks or big teams needed. A geek in their bedroom could become a superstar. Uh-huh.

Google’s acquisition of YouTube in 2006, a steal at $1.65 billion, actually narrowed the internet, says one expert. Why? No more idle surfing. Ideally the images are meant to excite and even anger viewers, which leads to more clicks. Former worker ants Caleb Cain, who became radicalized by watching rightwing videos, and highly skeptical ex-creator Natalie Wynn, play tour guides.

Shielded from responsibility, YouTube offers outlets for self-help—it’s an “on-ramp”—games and gamers; and pent-up rage, the latter a mainstay of its political offerings. Users become addicted to certain content and keep returning to the site. “Algorithm is a beast,” declares another expert. Trump and friends noticed and took advantage. Today, YouTube has 2.6 billion users worldwide. Gushes one true believer: “YouTube is our public library.”

The company’s former CEO, Susan Wojcicki, also contributes to the profiling. At this late date, certain conclusions have been reached. “The Golden Age of YouTube is over.” YouTube is more popular than TV. Enter YouTube Kids. Uh-oh.

YouTube has exacerbated a long list of crimes, outrages and catastrophes. If a human being—or for that matter, a robot—can think it, YouTube has a video of it, within reason. The rules are no hate speech, no “malicious attacks,” no graphic violence or anything else that could be construed as dangerous or harmful. What fun is that? No wonder so many users might want to move on. And yet the current valuation of Alphabet, parent company of Google and thus YouTube, is $1.6 trillion.

Winter’s newsy doc doesn’t fool around too much with interpretation. Thousands of jump-cut screenshots fly by at warp speed. It’s up to the audience to sort through the blizzard for takeaways. Here’s one: Just as graffiti is the poor person’s advertising and improvised explosive devices are the poor person’s air force, YouTube is the mirror that anyone who really needs to go on a diet desperately tries to avoid looking into. Even when the subject is “How to Recognize a Fascist.”

In theaters.