August 31, 2023

Director Alex Winter on his documentary, The YouTube Effect

It’s an “All Things YouTube and the Creator Economy” episode! We welcome returning guest, director Alex Winter whose latest documentary is The YouTube Effect. You may know Alex Winter for his role as Bill in the Bill & Ted movies, but these days he’s an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Many of Alex’s films explore the role of technology in our society, such as Downloaded, about the rise and fall of Napster, to Deep Web, about the online black market Silk Road.

The YouTube Effect explores the origins of the website, which began in 2005, and its rapid growth into one of the most powerful media platforms today. Interviews with early YouTube creators such as Anthony Padilla of the channel Smosh, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, and former YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki are featured in the movie. The documentary also dives into the many layers of controversy around YouTube, both good and evil. As a free, easy to use public platform with little to no regulation, YouTube is a forum open to all, inspiring the Arab Spring protests and Black Lives Matter movement. But as we’ve seen in recent years, YouTube also spreads propaganda and can radicalize vulnerable people to dangerous causes.

Coming from the world of film, director Alex Winter sees both similarities and differences between the creator economy of YouTube vs. the traditional media economy. He thinks that the entertainment industry has made a mistake in trying to monetize in similar ways to YouTube. The shift into streaming by media companies hasn’t monetized well for anyone, nor is it sustainable- hence the current WGA and SAG strike. Both industries currently find themselves at a crossroads: they need to balance valuing money over the well-being of the workers/creators, and for YouTube’s part, to allow regulation in order to stop actual harm to our society.

YouTube is a public forum owned and controlled by one of the biggest corporations in the world- Google- with 4.6 billion views a day. People can watch all of their news, all their entertainment, all their TV, even all of our recorded human history there. It’s both a search engine and the largest media conglomerate on earth. And the creator economy continues to thrive. As The YouTube Effect points out, by allowing people to simply add their own content, there’s no barrier to entry to get started on YouTube. Ad dollars are attached to how many views the content receives. The downside is that YouTube creators feel the grind to constantly make content, because they’ll get replaced instantly by someone else.

We’re in a new phase of YouTube’s power, Alex notes, which includes monetizing disinformation and propaganda. YouTube provides no guardrails and no standards and practices for what is posted on the site, and very little on the site is monitored or taken down. As a monopoly, the company has no competition and very little incentive to delete content. As he explores in The YouTube Effect, channels such as Prager University- a right-wing non-accredited online “school”- is heavily funded by dark money, promoting conservative agendas. This disinformation will spread quickly- the Florida Board of Education has just approved PragerU Kids videos to be shown in K-12 schools.

Alex believes that YouTube needs regulation to prevent the spread of dangerous propaganda that’s funded by ideological interests with deep pockets. Education in media literacy and lessons in how to recognize disinformation for both adults and kids will also be key to creating safer content on the platform. YouTube won’t go away and it will evolve- people have created robust communities on the platform, and it is part of our society.

You can watch The YouTube Effect streaming on Kanopy, and on VOD: iTunes, Prime Video, VUDU and other platforms.

Find Alex Winter:
Instagram: @alxwinter

Hear our previous interview with Alex, discussing his documentary Showbiz Kids.

WATCH THIS INTERVIEW on our YouTube Channel! Ironically (or not) this is our first interview actually recorded on-camera for YouTube.

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