YouTube is a global idea farm, not unlike Big Agriculture: welcome, user, to your pre-fab silo, built “just for you” by YouTube’s secret algorithm. That algorithm loads about 70% of what you see on your home page. It’s not limited to things you love.… YouTube also serves up things you love to hate.
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The Tribeca Film Festival is dead. Long live the Tribeca Festival.
In the past two years, we haven’t had to leave our living rooms to witness the accelerated evolution of the entertainment industry. Movie theaters went dark, musicians canceled tours, Broadway shuttered. Netflix mushroomed. As we (hopefully) emerge from COVID, the Great Reshuffle isn’t limited to the job market. The axis of the entertainment industry is shifting east – not from LA to New York, but from Hollywood to China. Racial and gender issues are at the forefront. Immersive entertainment mingles games, music, and movies.
Here in New York, an early epicenter for COVID, the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival was canceled. The delayed 2021 event garnered only 66 entries. This year the festival is back full force, with 111 films.
Shut your eyes. What are the first associations you have with the word “film”? I’m wagering the images you’ve conjured are at least a decade old, or have something to do with a bad rinse cycle in your dishwasher.
The word “film” might be on the decline, but the art form is burgeoning. Competitions and showcases like Tribeca are a still a wonderful forum for new talent, industry insiders, and audiences who want more than spoon-fed diversion. The Tribeca Festival (https://tribecafilm.com/festival), is embracing the change by changing their name.
Film gets first billing on this poster, but immersive, games, talks, tv, music, and audio storytelling are prominent – and lines between platforms are blurring fast. You can also join in virtually: for those who can’t (or won’t) attend live events, there’s Tribeca at Home (https://tribecafilm.com/festival/at-home).
It’s fitting that this first review for Tribeca 2022 is The YouTube Effect, a documentary about a massive and controversial source of information, misinformation, and entertainment. Whether you watch it or not, YouTube has an impact on global culture.
This feature documentary is directed by Alex Winter (Bill & Ted Face the Music, The Panama Papers, Zappa), and produced by Gale Anne Hurd (Mankiller, The Terminator Trilogy, “The Walking Dead”), along with Glen Zipper (Undefeated, Challenger: Final Flight, What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali). The YouTube Effect attempts to condense the history, breadth, value, and dangers of YouTube into 1 hour and 38 minutes.
It’s up to the audience to tease out the meaning of the title. The Southern Poverty Law Center might say the YouTube effect is radicalization. A parent might claim it’s the bane of online homework. For 12-year-old Ryan Kaji, the YouTube effect is about $30M. For me, it’s a great place to learn about container gardening and catch Jimmy Fallon’s monologue. For my adult son, a bona fide YouTuber, it’s a living.
The YouTube Effect begins with title cards: “In 2005, YouTube officially launched to over 2 million views per day. In one month, there were 25 million daily views. Today there are 2.6 billion users, worldwide.”
The filmmakers could have said, “2.6 billion viewers,” but they didn’t.
Contrary to the whip-fast opening credit sequence, this film is more of a survey course than a wild ride. While there are snippets of conspiracist Alex Jones and (mercifully unattributed) clips of white supremacists, The YouTube Effect is intended more to inform than incite.
After a short introduction to the dawn of the Internet, the documentary focuses on the platform’s founders, a few influential creators, and some of the social media platform’s actual and incidental casualties. The interviewees are an impressive bunch, including YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, former Smosh guy Anthony Padilla, and Caleb Cain, who dealt with death threats after breaking free of the alt-right. ContraPoint’s Natalie Wynn is articulate, and 12-year-old phenom Ryan Kaji is still a bit self-effacing despite seven years on camera. (His mom claims this YouTube thing was five-year-old Ryan’s brainchild.) The filmmakers even snagged an interview with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who has the patient manner of someone who’d let shopper holding a fussy baby ahead of her in the Whole Foods checkout line.
One of my favorite moments is when YouTube founders admit the platform was inspired by an early online photo service called “Hot or Not.” (It is what you think it is.) In a classic “Bill and Ted” moment, one soon-to-be-very-rich young California dude mused, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were videos instead?”
YouTubers, from the outset, could post from anywhere; a zoo, a coffee shop, mom’s basement. And they did, braving excruciatingly slow upload times early on. Viewers sifted through a lot of irrelevant content. That began to change in 2006 when Google executive Wojcicki pushed that company to buy YouTube for a whopping $1.65 billion. There were loud objections, inside and outside the company. Mark Cuban’s reaction to Google’s purchase began, “Only a moron …”
YouTube has become a default portal of entertainment and information. My mother, when she needed to know something, got out the World Book. I “google” stuff. My kids go to YouTube. Acclimated to multiple inputs, some users keep YouTube on all day.
Early on, the platform was a springboard for mainstream media – think Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. Today, YouTube can be a career: https://www.slice.ca/the-richest-youtubers-based-on-net-worth/.
YouTube is a global idea farm, not unlike Big Agriculture: welcome, user, to your pre-fab silo, built “just for you” by YouTube’s secret algorithm. That algorithm loads about 70% of what you see on your home page. It’s not limited to things you love … YouTube also serves up things you love to hate.
Creators do their best (or worst) and hope the algorithm sprinkles fairy dust on their content. Attention is consumed, repackaged, and reconsumed. Our eyeballs may be the digital equivalent of Soylent Green.
For most full-time YouTube creators, including my son, it’s a solitary and pressure-packed pursuit. He writes his script, does the lighting, selects wardrobe and set design, runs a sound check, operates the camera(s), does rewrites, retakes, and adds special effects. He edits, and searches for non-copyrighted music. Like all YouTubers, he tries to come up with a catchy title and engaging thumbnail. Finally, it’s time to upload the huge file to YouTube, and cross-promote on Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook. He updates his Patreon. Then he does it again, because without constant content, audiences drift.
Sometimes things get nasty. The YouTube Effect briefly delves into Gamergate, a controversy that spilled into the lives of real women in the male-dominated gaming industry. Victims claim search engine optimization (SEO) was used to plant slanderous results about them on Google, etc. Real-life death threats were involved.
If this all seems a little weird, welcome to the world my kids take for granted. I’m not sure it’s a weakness, but The YouTube Effect assumes a familiarity with the platform. I had to google “Smosh.” I’d never heard of Ryan Kaji.
The YouTube Effect brings up the Section 230/free speech issue, and there’s a brief mention of Pizzagate, but one shortcoming of this documentary is that it doesn’t emphasize the use of YouTube as a portal for fringe social media sites. The Washington Post, in an article published on December 10, 2018, puts it well:
YouTube is particularly valuable to … social media sites that are popular among hate groups but have scant video capacity of their own. Users on these sites link to YouTube more than to any other website, thousands of times a day, according to the recent work of Data and Society and the Network Contagion Research Institute, both of which track the spread of hate speech.
Though there is a protocol for suspension and there have been a few permanent bans, CEO Wojcicki says YouTube “can’t choose what’s to be believed.” Her opinion, “Advertisers want to be on the right side of history,” seems to be another way of saying the market will police itself. The majority of Jan 6 insurrectionists, this documentary claims, cited YouTube as a means of radicalization. If the market is successfully policing itself, can YouTube claim total innocence for real-life police casualties on January 6?
UCLA Professor Hany Farid has a solution for what he calls the Misinformation Apocalypse: what if people paid for YouTube, instead of relying on a system where advertisers are the clientele? YouTube founder Steve Chen chafes at that idea, saying, “Monetizing could be at the cost of the end user experience.”
Will litigation succeed where regulation has foundered? Grief-stricken Andy Parker, who doesn’t own the copyright to the video of his daughter’s brutal murder, thinks his legal fight is worthwhile, but he’s hoping for Congress to act.
Attempting to condense the effect of this sprawling, ever-changing social media platform into 98 minutes must have felt daunting. The makers of The YouTube Effect did yeoman’s work. They allowed movers and shakers to have their say on their own turf: there were at least 10 location shoots, all over the planet. The editing is solid, and the presentation is not cluttered with “devices.” The filmmakers allow us to arrive at our own conclusions, within reason.
If you’re in the mood to spit bile, skip The YouTube Effect and challenge your gall bladder with the platform’s more salacious content. If you want to pull back layers and watch sane, informed people poke at the platform’s soft parts, there’s lots to learn.
The YouTube Effect is a destination documentary, but I’m not sure how soon you’ll see it streaming on YouTube.
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All images are courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival and the filmmakers.