Review: ‘The YouTube Effect’ Is a Discursive Documentary

The numbing experience of web video surfing is recreated — intentionally, I think — in “The YouTube Effect,” a discursive documentary that assembles a fair amount of information about the impact of YouTube on society, but struggles to find something new to say with it. Directed by Alex Winter, the film charts the rise of the video sharing platform and then attempts to trace its Sasquatch-size footprint on the culture.

YouTube, the world’s second most popular site (after Google), is a stimulus machine. The film emulates this quality, finding a formal rhythm by layering a hodgepodge of YouTube clips with voice-over analysis from tech experts. It also spotlights several popular YouTube creators, including the social commentator Natalie Wynn, who is best known for her channel ContraPoints. A cogent speaker, Wynn says that she has declined offers to partner with streamers or cable because she values the “creative control” YouTube offers.

Interrupting these success stories are tangents into a number of troubling chapters in the site’s history. We hear from the video game developer Brianna Wu, a target of death threats during Gamergate, as well as Caleb Cain, who describes his tumble into a matrix of far-right videos. These events have already been heavily reported on — “Rabbit Hole,” a New York Times podcast, relays Cain’s experience — and the sections often feel like retreads.

The internet moves quickly, perhaps too quickly for an overview this unfocused. Even Winter seems overwhelmed by the task of curating this deluge of white-noise news and memes: His rundown of YouTube’s connection to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot lasts about as long as the viral video “Charlie Bit My Finger.”

The YouTube Effect
Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. In theaters.

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