Director Alex Winter on ‘The YouTube Effect’ and the Power of Parasocial Experience

Alex Winter - headshot credit Rick Wenner

Actor and filmmaker Alex Winter has returned to directing with The YouTube Effect, the latest in a series of documentaries that examines the video-sharing site’s rise to global power. Winter, whose previous works include Showbiz Kids (2020) and The Panama Papers (2018), debuted The YouTube Effect at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival; the film was released nationwide on July 14th.

Featuring interviews from the site’s then-CEO Susan Wojcicki, several of its founding developers, and popular YouTubers across the spectrum – including ContraPoints, Ryan’s World, and SmoshThe YouTube Effect details the unexpected success of the user-generated content creation format. YouTube’s early acquisition by Google helped push it out of its headquarters above a pizzeria to the forefront of Silicon Valley’s entertainment and information offerings.

Winter’s film also serves as a grounded investigation into the platform’s turn toward promoting extremist content. Many of The YouTube Effect‘s subjects give first-hand accounts of the site’s inability to protect its creators from harassment and violent threats. The documentary describes the formation of the alt-right pipeline on the platform and how YouTube’s policy failures and shortcomings allowed misinformation to thrive.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Youtube Effect documentary 1
(COURTESY: Drafthouse Films)

Screen Speck: Previously, you directed the documentary Showbiz Kids (2020). Now, in the era of YouTube, we have channels like Ryan’s World – which you featured in the documentary – and all these family vlog channels. Is this a new kind of child stardom? Or is it similar to the experiences of former child stars like Mara Wilson and Wil Wheaton?

Alex Winter: I think it’s very similar, but I think it’s different in that it’s like how [Hollywood] was at the turn of the 20th century. Because there are no rules. In Hollywood, there are a lot of stressors for these people. There are very, very specific laws about what you can and can’t do with these kids. There’s none of that on YouTube. It’s really just like hitting reset and going back to the turn of the century. 

Ryan’s parents are pretty clear about that. It’s one of the things that I really enjoyed about talking with them. They’re very smart, and they’re really good at communicating the concerns that even they have about the lack of regulation. So I’d say it’s more dangerous than it is for your average Hollywood kid. But one assumes that eventually there’ll be regulation for young talent. There just isn’t any at the moment.

The Youtube Effect documentary 2
(COURTESY: Drafthouse Films)

SS: You discuss the growth of the alt-right on YouTube, which was unanimous in its support for Donald Trump’s election bids. Now, we have people like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and his whole anti-vax platform, which is bolstered by the YouTube algorithm. Do you think YouTube now has a greater political influence than more traditional media outlets, such as CNN or Fox News?

AW: I think it’s a massive political influence. I think that the thing that makes it more pervasive than Fox News is that it’s global. Many more people are watching YouTube than any other form of media – including any television channels, newspapers, or any other form of news. So the audience is just far larger. 

But you also have the parasocial element. Unlike a news show, where you just have an anchor kind of talking into a camera kind of impersonally, there’s the power of the parasocial experience on YouTube, which has nothing to do with an algorithm at all. It is really one of the things that makes it such an easy channel for propaganda because it gives you kind of a false sense of intimacy from this person just sitting in their living room talking to you on a webcam. It has an enormous amount of power.

The Youtube Effect documentary 3
(COURTESY: Drafthouse Films)

SS: In the past few years, YouTube has made some pretty major policy changes. Perhaps most notably, the site removed InfoWars along with [the previous president]’s official channel. Do you get the impression that this kind of de-platforming has made YouTube safer? Or is it too late?

AW: I think that they’ve made some progress in terms of helping to fix the recommender algorithm issues that they had and pulling back on the issues they have with YouTube Kids. But I think that generally, there’s they are not taking de-platforming content moderation seriously. 

They’ve already begun to undo a lot of the things you just said. They’re already letting a lot of people back onto the platform that they had kicked off. Just last week, they changed their policy about de-platforming disinformation that talked about the 2020 election as being illegitimate, which is really dangerous propaganda that’s being put forth by right-wing terrorists and other extremist organizations. That will cause violence. People will get hurt because of that, and they could easily have just kept those policies in place, but they reversed them. 

So, generally, I don’t think that they’re heading in a great direction at the moment. I think that has more to do with the power of a medium that’s that big and the fact that they monetize the people on their platform – whether they’re spouting misinformation and hate speech, inciting people to violence, or if they’re a more benign kind of influencer.

The Youtube Effect documentary 4
(COURTESY: Drafthouse Films)

SS: Recently, Smosh reacquired their name and announced their plans to make video content under the Smosh brand. Do you think YouTube could ever go back to their initial idea of a creator-focused, short video model?

AW: Oh, there’s no way they’re going back. I mean, there’s no reason why it won’t be all of the above. Short videos that do very successfully, I’m sure that Ian [Hecox] and Anthony [Padilla] will do very, very well, in re-acquiring Smosh. They’re two very smart and creative guys. 

But I don’t think that the platform is going to shrink back into any sort of pre-existing state. It has an enormous amount of reach, and it’s growing as a media-based platform every day and it is owned by Google. It’s really Google’s media front-end – that’s really how people should think about it. Google is certainly not shrinking. So I think one should expect the company to get more powerful and more pervasive, not less.

SS: Has directing this movie changed your view on YouTube? Are you perhaps more reluctant to engage with an algorithm that pedals all this extremist content? Or was there a point, when you were interviewing all these content creators for The YouTube Effect, that you felt optimistic about YouTube’s future?

AW: I mean, I’ve never been particularly pessimistic long-term. I use the platform all the time, and certainly my kids and I have no intention of stopping. I think it is, overall, an extremely important and powerful tool that does a lot of good.

I learned a lot making the doc and I certainly think that we have some dark days ahead in terms of the power of the platform. I would say [YouTube is] less about an algorithm and more just about how the platform works in terms of how it’s more monetized and the power of a visual medium. It just has an extremely intense reach with its user base. So I do think that will be the case until there’s real legislation and regulation in place. I don’t think that Google [is] going to police their own platform. I just don’t see them trying to fix the major issues that they have without being forced to. So I’m kind of short-term pessimistic and long-term optimistic.

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