Sam Rosenberg: WorldStar and the insidious appeal of online schadenfreude

Tuesday, January 17, 2017 - 5:30pm

If you peruse the Internet endlessly like me, you are bound to have seen a viral video of a fight break out. It was probably recorded on a low-quality camera phone and has received thousands, possibly millions, of views. They can appear as either single clips or compilations, with the latter showing extended clips of other ridiculous stuff, like pranks gone wrong or outrageous public sexual acts. While videos of school and street fights are intended to be funny, they instead normalize violence by portraying a fight as entertainment.

One of the biggest outlets of these kinds of videos is WorldStar Hip Hop, a video blog that has been producing online content since 2005. As of 2013, WorldStar has garnered a large following, currently coming in at 1.76M followers on Twitter, nearly 7 million likes on Facebook, 3.8 million YouTube subscribers and 7.2m followers on Instagram. With its multifaceted platform, WorldStar has pervaded nearly every facet of social media, playing a particularly influential role on the now-defunct Vine.   

WorldStar Hip Hop isn’t completely devoted to producing explicitly violent content; the site has been instrumental in promoting Black voices through music videos, intimate behind-the-scenes features, breathtaking rap battles and other original content. In fact, it reposts and shares many non-violent videos that are genuinely funny and captivating. At the same time, though, it’s astonishing that WorldStar is mostly known for being unapologetic in distributing violent content.

Perhaps a counter argument would suggest that WorldStar is simply capturing the uncensored, unfiltered reality of certain public schools and neighborhoods in America. But the kind of violence in these videos are depicted as “shock value” humor, priming its viewers with a funny, eye-catching caption like “Racist Guys Attack An Interracial Couple In Washington State!” or “Dude Calls Classmate The "N" Word Then Runs For His Life Yelling "Help Me"!” By pulling viewers in with these insane headlines, people can laugh more easily at the misfortunes of whoever is getting punched, kicked or beaten in the video. There’s something so sinister about shock value that it makes you wonder why people find violence entertaining in the first place.

In addition to the brutal violence, what bothers me most about WorldStar videos, as well as its other amateur, copycat sites like Quality Fights (28.8k Twitter followers) and Vine Fights (165k Twitter followers), is that they perpetuate and generalize stereotypes about the people they depict in the video. Take Sharkeisha, for example. In November 2013, WorldStar posted a one-and-a-half minute clip from Instagram of a woman named Sharkeisha sucker-punching a friend, who seemed totally non-confrontational in the video.

As the video circulated and gained millions of views, the Internet reacted in various ways. Some expressed shock, disgust and disbelief, including the family of ShaMichael Manuel, the woman who Sharkeisha sucker-punched. According to a report from the New York Daily News, ShaMichael’s mother shunned people for “glorifying Sharkeisha” and simultaneously “taunting my daughter.” Others, however, were undeterred by the video’s violence, as Sharkeisha became a hit meme among Twitter and Vine users and even got her own definition on Urban Dictionary. On November 27th, the day after the video was published, “Sharkeisha” had become the number one trending topic on Twitter and the third most searched keyword of the day on Google Trends. Nothing, not even Sharkeisha’s punching, seemed to stop the Internet from spreading her name everywhere.

At the time, the Sharkeisha phenomenon may have seemed like a humorous addition to the Internet’s world of strange viral videos. But as Hip Hop Wired pointed out in an article a day after the video’s release, people who find this funny will “think this is the sort of classless behavior typical of any and all Black women.” Sharkeisha may have an odd name and a physical strength unknown to mankind, but her sudden act of brutal violence against an innocent person, as promoted by WorldStar and other online outlets, is far from funny. It’s shameful not just for the way it depicts the violence and distorts the identity of the person who caused it, but also for neglecting the victim of the fight almost entirely. This is just one of many examples of popular videos that normalize and perpetuate unmediated violence without considering the consequences.

Why do we laugh at other people’s misfortunes? Do we genuinely find school fights and public embarrassment funny or are they so startling that they naturally elicit an uncomfortable chuckle? Are we so masochistic that our sense of morality has been completely drained by the devious inner workings of social media? The Internet is obsessed with violence, but this notion isn’t a new development. Across most mediums, people consume violent content, whether through staged fighting on WWE or the Transformers franchise. There’s even a movie coming out this year called “Fist Fight” about two grown-ass male teachers (played by Charlie Day and Ice Cube) who engage in a classic, old-school fight in front of their school. It’ll probably score big at the box office.

But what is most troubling about these videos, specifically the ones found on WorldStar’s website, is that they spread faster and become far more pervasive through social media. Watching people beat each other up is certainly a fascinating way to observe human behavior, but it’s not productive or entertaining in any way. To put it simply, it’s dangerous and needs to be stopped.