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The Rise of the Viral Subway Fight Video

Subway cars happen to be an ideal setting for capturing footage of fights, but all of the popular clips don't mean below-ground violence is actually rising.
(Photo: lugolounge/Flickr)

(Photo: lugolounge/Flickr)

In early November, two videos capturing two separate scuffles aboard a New York City subway car appeared online. In the first, titled "Man Smacks the Soul Out of Girl on the NY Subway," a woman ridicules a man clasping a pole for wearing a dated jacket and, later, for having a speech impediment, among other things. She then swings a pair of leopard print stilettos at his head. He, in turn, delivers a hard slap to her face. A multi-passenger brawl ensues. In the second video, a man and woman on a packed train trade insults until the abuse turns physical.

These events, of course, aren’t without precedent. Today, you can find footage of people fighting on subways over everything from saggy pants to eating spaghetti to singing aloud. Type the words "subway fight" into prominent video-sharing sites such as Reddit, LiveLeak, and WorldStarHipHop for more examples of the same. Or just search YouTube itself.

Indeed, it's almost as though the subway fight video has become its own genre, with a common building of tension, eruption of violence, and cast of fellow passengers looking on in bewilderment as the train continues rolling toward its next stop. Sometimes bystanders intervene: in 2012, a then-24-year-old architect broke up an incident aboard a NYC subway simply by walking between the two combatants while nonchalantly munching on a handful of cheddar Pringles. After the clip went viral, the Internet bestowed the young man with a folk hero-like title: "Snackman." Other times, however, the only conclusion to the melees is that the person holding the smartphone stops filming.

Although the occasional news headline might claim that crime is soaring within New York City's subway system, Ferrell argues that footage of people fighting on subways creates the illusion that danger is more prevalent than it is.

Street fights occur everywhere. Parking lots, backyards, nightclubs, Denny’s—all are viable venues. But is there something special about the subway car that makes both the fights and footage of them more likely to occur and go viral?

FIRST OF ALL, SUBWAYSare unique in that they’re one of the few places in a city where an influx of strangers of all ages, classes, religions, and backgrounds gather together within a confined space. You might know the people around you, but chances are you don’t. And you certainly don't get to decide who gets on or off which car. The potential for misunderstanding or, say, competing interpretations of what defines "too loud" when it comes to earbud volume, is huge. If tempers do flare into a fight-or-flight situation, there's not much room for the latter until the doors open at the next station.

Given this, another factor that makes a subway car conducive for fighting is its neutral environment. People are more willing to intervene in a crime if they're in a familiar setting or place they feel some level of ownership, according to Andrew Newton, a senior research fellow at the University of Huddersfield’s Applied Criminology Centre who earlier this year conducted a study on crime within the London Underground. Since none of this applies to a subway train, most fellow straphangers likely won't volunteer to quell a volatile exchange between others until it gets really ugly. Even then, there's a good chance the Bystander Effect will come into play—meaning, people will hesitate to get involved in an altercation if there's a chance they themselves could get harmed.

Then there's the simple fact that commuting can be stressful. People generally dread going to work, they're exhausted on their way back home, and the last place they want to be is wedged between two strangers on a muggy train for the next 40 minutes. Inadvertent jostling may lead to intentional shoving, and sometimes another person can be a tempting target for unloading one's inner frustration.

When it comes to filming these fights, a subway car is an ideal location because, again, there's little opportunity for the participants to escape off frame. Add to that the fact that almost every passenger is carrying a smartphone in his or her pocket, and it's highly probable that the fight will make its way online.

In 2014, we no longer live in a world where a camera innocently documents something that happens: Rather, a camera alters, or even prompts, the incident in question, according to Jeff Ferrell, a professor of sociology at Texas Christian University.

"I think we're well beyond the notion that events happen and then they get recorded," says Ferrell, who specializes in the intersection of culture and crime. "I think the presence of recording devices becomes a kind of self-fulfilling dynamic within the event itself."

Cameras can sometimes exacerbate tension aboard a subway, or wherever, by turning people into performers. But, Ferrell argues, phones can be used for good, too. Sometimes the footage can lead to arrests; sometimes the presence of a recording device can help bystanders feel safe. "Whereas 50 years ago you may have pulled out your umbrella to whap somebody, or taken off your shoe to hit somebody, maybe now the first reaction is to put that screen between you and them as a kind of partition," Ferrell says.

THE POPULARITY AND PERVASIVENESS of these videos is likely due to, yes, violence! drama!, but also the awareness that you or I could be drawn into such a scuffle provided the right circumstances. Anyone who regularly rides the subway has felt or at least seen the escalating tensions that make these events possible.

Historically, Hollywood films such as The French Connection, Death Wish, and The Warriors have portrayed New York City's subway system as a place of mayhem and murder. While it's true that the subway has been a magnet for bad things in the past, and continues to be so today (notably with sexual harassment and assault), Newton notes in an email that there's no good evidence to support the idea that crime happens at a higher rate below ground than above.

In fact, Newton believes these subway fight incidents are likely rare. "To give you a comparison," he writes in an email, "there were less than 5,000 pickpocketing offences on the London Underground in 2012, but in context this figure was less than five crimes per million passenger journeys."

Although the occasional news headline might claim that crime is soaring within New York City's subway system, Ferrell argues that footage of people fighting on subways creates the illusion that danger is more prevalent than it is. "Probably less bad things are happening, but more are getting recorded," he says. According to a recent poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, New York's transit system is the safest for women when compared to 15 other major cities around the globe. Also, a couple decades worth of Gallup polling shows that the majority of Americans continue to think overall crime rates are higher in the present year than the last, despite the lack of statistics to back that up.

So do subway cars contain all the right ingredients to bake a fight-video cake? It seems they do. But does that mean the fights there are occurring with more frequency? Not necessarily.