On the Web, Punch and Click
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Every now and then, Blake Cater gets an appetite for a fight. There's something about a brawl -- a punch-out, a good old-fashioned throwdown -- that gets his adrenaline pumping. So with a few of his friends, he goes into his back yard and has at it.
And invites the world to watch.
Armed with a digital video camera, Cater and his friends tape their slugfests and post them on video-sharing Web sites, including Cater's Myspace.com page. The images tell a succinct, brutal story -- punches landing squarely on jaws, fists flattening noses, neck-straining headlocks followed by jackhammer storms of more blows to the face.
Cater says no one has been badly injured -- hey, these guys are friends -- although participants can usually count on some bloody lips, plenty of sore knuckles and a few bruised egos. "I'm not in any way a violent person," says Cater, 22, who lives in Burlington, N.C., "but I enjoy getting out there and fighting when I can."
There's more where that came from. Lots more. The convergence of cheap cellphone and digital cameras, easy-to-use video-sharing Web sites and good old human anarchy has created a whole subgenre: the amateur fight video, now playing all over the Internet. On such sites as YouTube.com or Google Video, you'll increasingly find a treasure-trove -- or a cesspool -- of people beating on other people, caught on tape by passersby, friends and other photographers. Some of the violence is consensual. Most of it isn't.
Taken together, the fights might be America's unfunniest home videos, an archive of human aggression or a catalogue of stupidity and senselessness. They're also documents of dangerous and illegal behavior, since fighting in public is typically a felony. Although the combatants in fight clips are rarely identified, let alone arrested or punished, fight videos occasionally pop up on the police blotter.
In Arlington, Tex., last month, police arrested six men and boys, allegedly members of a gang called Playas After Cash, for arranging street fights and selling DVDs of the mayhem over the Internet; a 16-year-old participant in one of the recorded fights was hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage. And in April, a seven-minute video of two girls fighting in Fresno -- while one of the girls' mothers watched -- led to a flurry of news reports and a police investigation of the mother for child endangerment (the girls were suspended from school).
There are grainy videos of men belting, head-butting and kicking other men, and shaky camera shots of girls and women hitting, scratching and stomping each other. The soundtrack is usually the excited voices of spectators, but many of the clips have been set to music (usually hip-hop or thrash metal). Most are devoid of context or explanation, or even provocation.
The settings are anyplace and everywhere. One arm-flailing fight takes place between surfers offshore. And a three-minute video of a Russian street brawl appears to pit two small armies of young men. As the camera rolls, the two mobs move toward each other at a slow walk, then combust into anarchy.
In interviews, representatives of video-sharing Web sites seemed only vaguely aware that fight videos are being posted on their services. A few even needed the concept explained to them.
All the major Web services employ teams of people to scour user postings and remove objectionable material. But since nudity and sexually oriented videos command the most attention, violence often slips past.
Google Video has no specific prohibition on clips featuring fighting, but Peter Chane, business products manager for the site, says his company will flag videos "in which someone is hurt or someone dies." Except that the extent of injuries in fight videos isn't always clear. Google Video, in any event, hosts plenty of mayhem, including brawls that leave participants motionless and apparently unconscious. "We try to be as open as possible," Chane says. "Our number one goal is to get as much content online as possible, as long as it doesn't offend."