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Interview: ‘The YouTube Effect’ Director Alex Winter

Drafthouse Films will release Alex Winter’s incisive documentary “The YouTube Effect” in Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas on July 7th, before expanding nationwide on July 14th.

The feature documentary from Winter (Bill & Ted Franchise, Showbiz Kids, The Panama Papers, Zappa), explores the ascension and acceleration of YouTube, a video-sharing website that started with humble origins and has gone on to change how we experience the world. With exclusive access to some of YouTube’s biggest stars, the film presents an eye-opening and troubling look at the platform now so powerfully embedded in our lives.

Disney Plus Informer recently had the opportunity to talk to the film’s director, Alex Winter. In the interview, Alex shares that he has made previous films on the rise of the online community before and during the early days of the internet and the growth of online platforms like Napster. He believes there is no bigger platform in the world than YouTube. Alex also discusses YouTube’s flaws and its role in the Rise of disturbing and dangerous content on the platform. Alex explains that Youtube is monetized through ad dollars, which incentivizes more aggressive and negative content. YouTube is the largest company within Google and has more global attention, making it a significant influence on far-right and extremist content.

Read on for the full interview below:

Yeah. The fact is that Youtube is so vast and is such a wide swath of content that it could never be all that. And there’s a lot of what that platform is doing that is very good, and even very important.  I would say at this point, it kind of houses all of the world’s information and there’s really nothing else that has that kind of scale. It’s almost unimaginable in scale..because it has so many eyeballs on it…because of the way it monetizes which is through ad dollars. So they’re incentivized from a profit standpoint to keep people on a platform, but also to keep eyeballs on the platform. And  studies have shown for years that people are more incentivized or attracted to darker, more aggressive and negative content than they are to milder forms of content. And that’s where I think the issues lie, because there’s a lot of propaganda, a lot of hate speech, a lot of incitement to violence, and all of that content is being monetized and is being viewed by billions of people.
Was there anything you learned during this process that really surprised you?
As the film’s director, was there anything you struggled with while trying to present this story?
Yeah, every day. That’s just called filmmaking. Every day you wake up and go, Oh, my God! Do we have our arms around this? And you wrestle with problems all day. You hopefully go to bed that night going, Yup! We got this. Then you wake up the next morning with the same gut level panic and start again. Sure, I mean, this is a very, very significant story with a lot of moving parts. Wes Cadwell, the editor, and I put an enormous amount of work into clarifying and honing those aspects of the story to make them clear and impactful and emotional. And that is challenging. I mean, it’s not easy work. It’s something that takes a great deal of  brain grease. But we felt the story was important so we just dug in.
Moving forward, what do you think YouTube’s future holds for society?
What do you hope the audience takes away with them after they see the film?
I just hope they’re emotionally engaged because I think if someone is emotionally connected and engaged with the story, then it will excite their imagination and their own thought processes rather than a doc filmmaker telling them you should do this, or you should do that. I really try to leave people with kind of paradoxes… with questions that are so challenging to answer… that have contradictory internal aspects to them, that it gets your brain moving. I think when that happens, that’s how art works and it has more of an emotional impact. I also think that you’re hopefully activating some folks in a way, but not in a dogmatic way, not where they’re going to go out and do our bidding. But they’re going to think for themselves and help make the world a better place.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

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