The video is arresting.
A figure wearing a ski mask appears just outside the front door of a school on a sunny day. In an instant, he and a student are charging each other, fists raised.
They meet, a punch is thrown, and the person in the ski mask falls to the ground.
Students scream. A girl charges the person who threw the punch, and then punches him. Students scream some more as the shaky frame captures them running to and fro.
Welcome to the website worldstarhiphop.com — and in this case, the campus of Long Reach High School in Columbia.
The video, all 27 seconds of it and shot with a cellphone, was viewed more than 500,000 times in the first 24 hours after it was posted. Virtually every mainstream media outlet in the area, including baltimoresun.com., carried it. Local network TV affiliates like WBAL-Channel 11 led their newscasts with it the next day.
It is at least the third video of a violent crime in Baltimore that has gone viral on worldstarhiphop.com in the past year. One showed a horrific beating of a transgendered person in a McDonald's in Rosedale. Another showed a Baltimore policeman being attacked by a man who had been part of a crowd in East Baltimore watching officers trying to subdue and handcuff a man in the middle of the street.
In each, the WorldStar website was the first with the news. And judging by the Web traffic for each video, it is news for which there is a huge appetite.
The half-million page views this week of the fight at Long Reach High is not an anomaly. WorldStar is the 301st most popular website in the United States, according to Alexa, the premier Web information company.
That makes it more popular than NBC.com, thedailybeast, Gawker, MTV, The Hollywood Reporter, Perez Hilton, NCAA.com. or the U.S. Department of Education website — to name just a few mainstream online operations.
So who's watching? And is that a healthy or dangerous appetite that's being fed?
"Compared with all Internet users, its users are disproportionately African-American," according to Alexa, "and they tend to be childless, moderately educated men in the age range of 18 to 24 who browse from school and home."
Now in its sixth year, WorldStar is seen by many critics as yet another example of the coarsening of American culture and life — another low on a downward continuum that extends from the Jerry Springer-style trash-talk shows of the 1980s and 1990s through to the TMZ.com and RadarOnline websites of today.
Worse yet, say some media observers, because of its African-American identity, it has the potential to be used by some viewers to create or fuel stereotypes of urban America as an out-of-control, chaotic space dominated by young, violent, African-American men.
"WorldStar is just basically shock video," says Nsenga Burton, an associate professor at Goucher College and editor-at-large for the African-American-focused website The Root. "They comb the pop cultural landscape for videos that are shocking on multiple levels and feed into peoples' voyeuristic tendencies."
But beyond content that includes violent and explict sexual videos, Burton sees deeper ways in which WorldStar is exploitative and problematic for places like Baltimore and for African-Americans in general.
Burton says when violent crime videos from Baltimore go viral, it's in part because it plays into peoples' misperceptions of the city.
The misperception: "It's this violent, crime-ridden place taken over by young, angry, criminal people of color who don't have anything else to do but stir up trouble."
And that "demonization of young black men in spaces like Worldstar makes some of us then unable to see them as victims," she says, citing the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, where a 17-year-old black man was shot on the way home from the store. "And some young black people are victims of crime. We can be victims, too."
Craig Seymour, a former editor at Vibe magazine who now teaches communication at Northern Illinois University, acknowledges the shock and outrage that some of the videos at WorldStar are intended to trigger, but he sees the website as serving an important cultural purpose as well.
"I'm disturbed by a lot of what I see on WorldStar," Seymour says. "But at the same time, I respect it as being a really unfiltered expression of the culture. When you want to see from the street level what is going on, WorldStar is definitely the place."
He thinks the website's power has been amplified exponentially in recent years by mainstream media picking up the raw videos and posting them on their websites or airing them on network stations.
"Those videos have led to some important debates about police brutality and economic disenfranchisement, among other issues," he says.
One of those issues was the vulnerability and lack of protection for transgendered citizens in Baltimore, which came to the fore after the McDonald's beating.
WorldStar did not reply to interview requests Friday. But the website's founder, 38-year-old Lee "Q" O'Denat, recently told a New York Magazine interviewer that he believes his operation is providing a public service.
"You've got a lot of people who stay indoors all the time, looking at their computers and whatnot," he said. "They don't know what is going on right outside their house, in their backyards. We're showing the reality of the situation, giving them a dose."
Although rappers and musicians pay for their videos to appear on the site, amateur videos are uploaded by viewers. O'Denat also said in the interview that rather than encouraging violence and criminal behavior by making celebrities out of some of those who are seen perpetuating it on videos he showcases, the website discourages crime.
"The night got a million eyes. It is a surveillance society. Go out and do some dumb crap, there's a good chance you're gonna wind up on WorldStar for everyone to see. So maybe you'll think twice," he said.
Seymour says there is more to the WorldStar debate than merits of showing violence.
"Sure, sometimes you're just watching with your mouth hanging open, thinking, 'What in the world is this?'" Seymour says of the site. "But in the end, a place like WorldStar is saying that — for good and bad — people in these urban environments deserve to be seen, and there deserves to be a witness to what is going on in their lives."