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illustration Callum Abbott

Omegle defies its dick-ridden image to become a social isolation success

The randomised video and text chat site is experiencing a renaissance in quarantine, offering new opportunities for connection to its growing Gen Z audience

When 19-year-old Aya opened Omegle in November 2020, she thought it would be a one time thing. Another short-term serotonin boost to beat the 4AM lockdown insomnia and the overwhelming feeling of loneliness that comes with it. “I felt bored and isolated that night. I hadn’t been on Omegle in years. I had no idea that it would become such a habit,” she says. 

Aya is by no means alone in her return to the site. Despite the randomised video chat reaching its first peak of popularity in 2013, Omegle has experienced a second wave of interest during the pandemic. According to SimilarWeb, the site had a monthly traffic increase of approximately 25 million at the end of last year and continues to attract new users daily. With few opportunities to meet new people during lockdown, it’s unsurprising that the site’s ‘Talk to strangers!’ slogan has become more appealing than ever. Omegle is also free and requires no registration, so it’s a low-effort connection. The playful and nostalgic Web 2.0 aesthetic also tends to speak to current aesthetic trends among its new base of Gen Z users, who look to the 90s and early 00s for fashion and cultural references. It does, however, mean navigating page after page of anonymous penises to arrive at any kind of substantial conversation. 

Berni Good, a psychologist specialising in cyberpsychology, puts the renewed interest in the site down to the lockdown. “We are social creatures. One of our fundamental needs as human beings, for good psychological mental health, is to connect with others and relate to each other in a meaningful way,” Good says. They also highlight that the monotony of working from home has removed the thrill of new experiences from our lives, which Omegle can digitally replicate. “The fact that it’s randomised means that the user may be able to access some of the ‘thrill seeking’ experiences that they don’t get in real life at the moment.”

For many new Gen Z users, the appeal of Omegle also comes from a place of nostalgia. Back in the early 2010s, Omegle wasn’t simply a randomised video chat site for over 18s, but an unregulated live window into the rest of the world... and the sign of a truly anarchic sleepover. “It was the thing to do when we were all young teenagers,” explains 19-year-old Amy. “Nobody gave a fuck about the 18+ guidance, it probably just made it even more exciting. Looking back, it’s mad that we would just go on it with our mates for hours speaking to randoms, or screaming if we saw the inevitable masturbating stranger.”

Seeing some dicks is pretty much a given on Omegle. The flickering, anonymous nudes are part of the chaos which contributed to the site’s rise to infamy. However, the real anarchy of Omegle comes from it's unavoidable unhinged interactions – of which there are plenty.

 “When I was 14, I saw a man walk on a treadmill, wave, then snort a huge line of coke,” Anna tells Dazed.

Aya also used the site at a young age, “Back in 2014, I came across this old man sitting on a rocking chair. He had his eyes shut and it looked like he wasn’t breathing. We all freaked out because there was this creepy music playing and we thought he must be dead. After about 20 minutes he opened his eyes and started screaming.”

I had to visit the site again. When it was at its first peak of popularity I was 13 and the real adrenaline rush came from knowing that I was breaking every rule my parents had ever given me. Strange adults on the internet with their dicks out or screaming that they had just done ‘a fuck load of meth’ was my Mum’s worst nightmare. So naturally, it became the most anticipated event of any sleepover.

It now comes with a clear warning on the home page: Predators have been known to use Omegle, so please be careful. The first screen to appear is flickering and dark and features a political pro Hong Kong message:

You’re now chatting with a random stranger. Say STAND WITH HONG KONG AGAINST CCP!

Stranger: hey

You: hello

Stranger: you are cute ☺

You: thanks, do you use this website often?

Stranger: I am 6ft muscular brown hair blue eyes

Stranger: I play football and lacrosse

You: I have never played lacrosse

Stranger: Show boob?

Stranger: I have 8 inch cock

Stranger has disconnected

I spent two hours on Omegle without even realising it, skipping the masturbation videos - it’s clear that some things never change. I came across a guy who claimed would do anything I asked, I disconnected as he went to prove it, by beginning to eat a fake houseplant and barking like a dog. I finally had a decent conversation about the site with someone claiming to be from Brighton: “I like that it’s random man, you never know who is one click away. I haven’t been out of my fucking house since Friday”. It took me a little while to make use of the ‘interests’ bar, where users can type specific topics they’re interested in talking about to influence chat matches. I found the constant stream of sexual content would mostly be avoided by typing ‘TikTok’ in. 

The chaotic nature of Omegle is the complete antithesis to the highly personalised For You page dictated by the TikTok algorithm. Creators are using the site to their advantage, getting the #Omegle tag on TikTok to 8.4 Billion hits, proving the site as valuable in supplying surprising content. On YouTube, influencers from Emma Chamberlain to James Charles rack up millions of views by recording their Omegle sessions, surprising fans and interacting with unbeknownst, nonchalant users. Chamberlain had a lockdown birthday session, while Charles asked users to pick his makeup. Other YouTube formats see users sit on the site for 24 hours straight, roast other users, or pretend to be celebrities.

@bobbymoore44, a content creator with over 6.5 million followers on TikTok, is just one of the users who has jumped on the trend, creating TikToks where he is shown using Omegle as a way to test out his pickup lines and using the ‘skip’ button if his lines don’t land or provide interesting contentBobby tells me the ‘skip’ button is an important facet of the app’s renewed popularity. “Obviously in real life, it can be pretty nerve wracking meeting new people for the first time. On Omegle, you never have to have an awkward moment if you don’t want to. It’s a pretty decent way to build up your people skills.”

Cybersociologist Berni Good recognises this phenomenon as the stranger-on-the-train effect, postulated by Zick Rubin. “In these environments we are willing to share rather personal information with people whom we believe we will not see again,” Good says. “The ‘skip’ button helps to enable the user to skip questions or content that they may find offensive and/or boring.”

However, the ‘skip’ button doesn’t always have a positive impact for all users. @isaiah_nyc is a TikTok content creator known for his bright makeup look videos. Isaiah’s Omegle-themed TikTok went viral, clocking 7.7 million likes, when he recorded a stranger asking why he had ‘makeup and long hair’ if he didn’t ‘want to be a girl’. Although Isaiah saw the ensuing interaction as wholesome, he stressed to me that this was a pretty rare positive moment on the site. “What my followers don’t know is that it took hours of skipping and abuse for me to have this chat,” he says. “People think that it’s okay to say homophobic slurs just because they can skip instantly. I think that it’s good that TikTok creators have started to use Omegle as screen recording can hold trolls to account.”

Berni Good tells me that this is the disinhibition effect, which happens when we immerse ourselves in computer mediated communication in this way. “In this state, people perceive that they are anonymous (even if they are on video),” Good explains. “People also perceive a lack of authority in these virtual worlds so they will do and say things that they may not say face to face. We may see people experiencing conversations online that they just would not have in real life.”

In recent months, Omegle has come under fire from concerned parents whose children have stumbled upon live X-rated content – from US Christian groups to British presenter Davina McCall. Despite the understandable concerns surrounding the safeguarding of young users and the site’s lack of accountability, Omegle has been here for over a decade and isn’t going anywhere fast – it seems even more so that the shock factor augments the lockdown fatigue-buster. 

Some users who have faced harassment on more mainstream sides of the internet such as Twitter or Facebook have found the site valuable. 15-year-old Steffanie* has found that Omegle has helped kill loneliness, after getting bullied online and deleting all of her social media. “It’s nice to know that I can be anonymous but also have some amazing chats with people from anywhere in the world, it makes me feel less alone – especially during lockdown.” 

So among the fug of masturbating strangers, athletic coke users, terrifying old men, and TikTokers on the prowl for new content, perhaps there really are some wholesome conversations to be had on this lawless corner of the internet… even if it’s only until we are allowed outside again where there (hopefully) isn’t a screaming, naked stranger at every turn.