Cheering and shouting "World Star, baby," passengers aboard an NYC subway train were videotaped in November encouraging three young men to punch and kick a stranger who was hospitalized with injuries.
Rather than onlookers' filming the beat down, victim Daniel Endera later told a reporter, "they should have at least called the cops."
Either way, the highlights make ideal video for World Star Hip Hop, which is a YouTube-like video website where users submit amateur videos that are then selected by the site's staff for publication. The videos fit into three neat categories: rap, sex or violence.
Another egregious example occurred Saturday in Atlanta, where two of the teens accused of beating a young man they perceived to be gay had video cameras rolling during the alleged attack, which was uploaded to World Star Hip Hop and other websites that alerted police and prompted a federal investigation.
"When I found out the video was online, I didn't want to see it," said Brandon White, 20, the Atlanta victim. "It was embarrassing, it was humiliating. Why? Because it was one guy against three other people. By them going ahead and wanting to release it and put it on the Internet, I feel they wanted the attention, they wanted to make themselves look like they were brave, they were strong. But in my opinion, I'm the brave one."
Such violent videos, shot by amateurs witnessing or participating in fights, have triggered at least six criminal investigations since April 2011 and highlighted what at least one sociologist calls the normalization of violence.
But crime pays in most of these cases; the website nets about 500 million impressions a month, according to its founder, Lee "Q" O'Denat, who started the site as a way to share lesser-known rap music but now envisions a World Star media empire. The company would not disclose how much it is worth, but O'Denat said it charges anywhere from $650 to $2,500 to post music videos and party promotion videos.
O'Denat, 38, said the sensibility of the "urban media" site and what gets picked to be featured on the home page each day are a matter of showing users what "really goes on the world."
On a recent day, the homepage included videos titled "The Bigger You Are The Harder You Fall: Big Girl Gets Beat At University Mall In Florida!" and "SMDH: This Boy Starts Fighting 2 Girls & Then Starts Running At Carter High School!"
"We like to display the reality of today's world: the good, the bad and the ugly. We're covering what's out there. We're just the messenger. We're not creating it, we're displaying what's going on in today's world," O'Denat said in an interview about his website.
That reality focuses on the street events to which O'Denat says his audience can relate, including crime.
Endera, the New York subway victim, was punched in the face and kicked in the stomach for close to two minutes without any intervention from other people on the train. Indeed, the young women recording the incident can be heard laughing and discussing the video.
Such reaction illustrates what researcher Jeff Ferrell calls the merging of "real-life fights and made-for-TV conflicts," which are becoming indistinguishable, especially to young people.
"There are cell phone cameras pulled out at almost any fight," says Ferrell, a sociology professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth who studies the intersection of culture and crime. "Some fights are staged for cameras, where it becomes not so much about grievances as it is about staging. What we once called gangs are now closer to video crews."
Endera, 25, the subway victim, said he was disgusted by the people who filmed the incident. "I feel we're in a generation that laughs at people getting beat up," he told the New York Post. "That isn't entertainment."
Similarly, a video from New Year's Eve in Toronto shows a crowded McDonald's restaurant cheering "World Star Hip Hop" moments before a young man punches and kicks a pregnant woman who had been yelling at the restaurant's staff. She ends up on the floor after being hit by multiple patrons.
The theme is common in many of the fight videos, where bystanders egg on attackers and yell "World Star Hip Hop" as the incident is ongoing, as if the purpose of the violence were to make it onto the website.
Ferrell says that's precisely what's happening, with young people becoming so desensitized to violence through other media, including TV, video games, and movies, that they don't think much of it to videotape violence themselves when they see it.
"Violence is normalized as a part of sitcoms and news coverage and video games. In one fight, a kid really did go to the hospital with a fractured skull. It's not fake in that sense, but it's immediately perceived as an image. If I'm standing 5 feet from a kid fighting and instead of intervening I'm thinking of a camera angle, in that moment, it's already been abstracted. You've already made it an image," he said.
O'Denat said he thinks it's stupid that viewers of his website would make or film a fight in order to get on the website, but can't be held responsible for those who do.
"It's unfortunate what happens with victims of any crime, that people recorded it and thought 'I want to put it on World Star or Twitter or Facebook or Craigslist.' We all get the blame when something goes wrong, and I think it's fairly unjust," he said. "I can't comment on someone being stupid who wants to put it on World Star, and I can't really take too much blame when someone mentions World Star on the video."
But Ferrell says that's not a fair defense.
"Knowing a website exists may encourage people to videotape a fight. Knowing others upload makes you want to upload," he said.
O'Denat said the site cooperates with anyone who wants a video of themselves removed from the site, and emphasizes that the website labels its risque videos with a warning before viewers can watch.
World Star's founder and its attorney defended the website as something akin to journalism, with general counsel Jennifer Granick going so far as to say it roughly equivalent to the New York Times and ABC News reporting on crime and news in the world.
"Everyone has a cell phone camera, videotaping what's going on. Everyone's a news reporter going out and saying what's happening in the world," O'Denat said. "Times have changed from twenty to thirty years ago. Most people don't understand this is what's going on outside."
Granick said, "I'm not sure why it's controversial. There's stuff on news sites all the time when investigations or reports about something happen and then police investigate and someone gets charged."
Police departments agree, at least in part. Christine O'Brien, spokeswoman of the Philadelphia Police Department, said World Star and similar sites have helped detectives zero in on suspects quickly just from watching the videos. They solved one such crime in early January, when a man was jumped, beaten and robbed while waiting for a subway. The incident was uploaded to World Star Hip Hop, and detectives made an arrest in the case four days later.
"After we got this got tip [about the World Star video], we found the video and were able to gather information from it," O'Brien said. "At that point, we made decision to make sure investigators were made aware of this website, to go on and look for incidences. You don't realize how many people follow YouTube and the videos. It's a great tool in solving a lot of these crimes."
A Florida sheriff's department agreed, saying that they were able to arrest a father heard cheering on his fighting son in a World Star video, by watching the video and identifying witnesses in it.
"As far as law enforcement, it makes our job a whole lot easier," said Debbie Carter, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Department. "Once it's on a public website and it becomes public record, anyone can download it, so that can be then used in evidence."
O'Brien and Carter said they now have specially trained staff that monitors videos such as these.
Granick and O'Denat also compare the site to reality TV, including the "Jerry Springer Show."
"People love to hate World Star," Granick said. "People are amazed at the vagaries of other humans on this planet. It's similar to people wanting to watch Jerry Springer. The audience that likes those kind of shows has similar sensibility for World Star. They're the people who watch 'Jersey Shore,' the Kardashians, and Jerry Springer."
"People love to see raw and uncut videos, news, shock videos, like reality TV. People love to see that. It's real, unscripted, unrehearsed," he said. "They all love what we pick. We're like DJ-ing the whole world."
Ferrell agrees, noting that the website is just part of a violence-saturated media culture, which results in kids growing up thinking that fights are an acceptable form of entertainment. While crime has actually gone down in the past 15 years, the media's widespread portrayal of it makes it seem like it's more pervasive, he said.
"It's not to suggest kids shouldn't shoot videos," he said. "In a world of 'CSI' and violent video games and Hollywood slasher movies, it's a lot to ask of kids not to imagine filming fights when their media world is pervaded by violence. It's not about morality, but about production values. 'CSI 'is showing the same thing but with better camera angles and better editing. It's absurd to ask kids not to focus on violence when the rest of the media is."
The website certainly has found an audience. Alexa, a Web analytics company, ranks the site 266th in site traffic in the United States, ahead of culture websites like MTV.com and PerezHilton.com. For O'Denat, that translates to significant income.
"Think how much we've made violence and entertainment into a commodity," Ferrell says. "Before we condemn this and say how outrageous it is, we have to be careful not to see violence in their lives without seeing it in our own."
O'Denat, an innovative entrepreneur who has always been ahead of the business curve, knows a good commodity when he sees it. In the future, he hopes to create a media empire, including original programming, shows and signed artists with the same World Star sensibility.