My goodbye to Omegle

Naomi Hofman

The platform known for randomized global video chatting is dead. Omegle, launched in March 2009, has ceased to exist. Date of death: November 8th, 2023. Perpetrator: Leif K-Brooks of Brattleboro, Vermont. Also known as the founder of Omegle.  

It is difficult to say if Omegle was the first of its kind, but it was easily the most popular of its kind. This platform connected (mostly video-) chatters from all over the world to each other online at random. Creating a unique experience that other social platforms, from YouTube to - the platform formerly known as - Twitter, could not offer. YouTube had its video-sharing capabilities, Twitter connected our global community into a world of random thoughts and not-so-random debate. But Omegle connected you randomly to anyone in a one-on-one video chat. Immediately on your screen was a real live person, a group of people, a masked figure, or… well there were a lot of issues with this platform. As the founder says in his last message on the website, if the internet is our global village, the Omegle is like “strolling down a street in that village, striking up conversations with the people you ran into along the way”. Sadly, it just happened to be that a large part of those people along the way were looking either for sexual contact or looking to harass others. This is made worse by the fact that teenagers, and even children, were not restricted from using Omegle. Moreover, in my experience, it is predominantly teens and preteens who use this website. 

The alt-right, white supremecists, anti-semintists, you name a kind of bigot, they were likely there, on Omegle.


Omegle's Issues

In general, my experience with the platform was mostly positive, even though I would consider most of the activity on the platform to be some form of bullying. Anonymity does strange things to people. Calling someone ugly, then quickly clicking the “new” button to skip to the next user was incredibly common. Sadly, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to “bullying” or often outright harassment on Omegle. Like many platforms that sustain freedom of speech by not censoring its users, Omegle faced a vast selection of problems. From scammers, to hate speech, discrimination, and sexual harassment. But it was the affordances on this platform that made these issues all the worse.

One of the affordances on this platform was the use of keywords. By using keywords a user would make the randomized selection of these video chats a bit less random. Using the keyword “Obama” for example somewhere around 2008 would likely get you matched with a person in an Obama mask, a Democrat, or, let’s be real, a person looking to harass Obama supporters. Expectedly, this affordance of using keywords would be used by those who were looking to harass specific groups. Often ethnic minorities, women, and even leftist users were targeted. Specifically during COVID-19, Omegle was a way for all kinds of extremists to find new audiences. Many who are de-platformed in other online spaces, could freely move about here. The alt-right, white supremacists, anti-semitists, you name a kind of bigot, they were likely there, on Omegle. 

At the same time your cousin, your daughter, your nephew, and your 10-year-old neighbor were probably also on Omegle. After all, there isn’t much more exciting to a child than uncensored cursing. Sadly, cursing would be the least traumatizing thing a child could come across on this website. Besides bigotry, sexual content was also rampant. A running online gag about using this platform in my teen years was that you couldn’t go more than a couple of clicks on this site without a penis flashing across your screen. The chilling fact behind this online “gag” was that Omegle did turn into “a heaven for pedophiles” (New York Times, 2021), according to a federal suit defending an 11-year old who fell victim to a pedophile on the platform. Omegles problem with child predators was so bad, at some point the website stated a warning: "Predators have been known to use Omegle, so please be careful". Later this warning was removed.

A quote used by K-Brooks in his final post on Omegle.

K-Brooks’ motive

If you visit right now you will see the website's prior functions aren't available, it is dead. So... What happened? The Omegle website now shows a letter by its creator in which he details his reasons for creating the platform. His experience with the internet as a “magical” place, especially as a child growing up in a small town. He grew into a more well-rounded person by participating in a larger, more diverse, more vibrant world, in which he could be an active participant. Furthermore, as a survivor of childhood rape himself, K-brooks was under the impression that, contrary to the risk of interacting with those in the physical world, the risk of online interaction was lessened by the symbolic shield that was “the miles of copper wires and fiber-optic cables” between him and other people. It is clear that behind the creation of Omegle lies no ill will. 

Still even its creator admits any tool can be used for good and evil, and he fought for Omegle to be good. Even working with law enforcement to actually put child predators behind bars in the physical world. In the end, though, the fight for Omegle turned out to be a never-ending fight. So he eventually put down his weapons and deactivated the website. 

Omegle has lost the battle, but the war of the internet still rages on.

K-brooks ends his plea by stating that Omegle has lost the battle, but the war of the internet still rages on. His was a small platform, comparatively of course, one whose barricades could not hold up against the many controversies it faced (understandably so) and it has indeed finally collapsed. Bigger companies have held on longer than this platform, but as he says “all have their breaking point somewhere”. K-brooks worries that eventually, the entire internet will become like a new version of a TV, just another media device focused on passive consumption, and he does have a point. 

When you look at how the internet, specifically its most popular platforms, have evolved over the years it's clear that this global village runs on an attention economy. This is a consequence of prioritizing “free” content. If it's free to use, there is a different way these users will pay. For example, data mining, the selling of personal data of users, or the attention economy, as there is profit to be made in keeping users' attention as long as possible. As the internet has turned from an information economy into an attention economy through the years, K-brooks’ final worries about the internet are on the money. 


For the greater good…

Omegle stands symbolic of the early days of the internet. The idea behind its creation is still entangled with the wholesome idea of the internet as “a global village”. A sentiment which has been long lost. Nowadays people are very aware of the dangers of the internet, specifically that of anonymity and what terrible things it makes possible. Something meant to be fun and connective can quickly become something incredibly dangerous when certain people get access to anonymity. As seen on the internet in general, anonymity creates room for speech without accountability. We so value our freedom of speech, understandably so. However, we did not consider it in the context of anonymity before a communal space like the internet - like Omegle - was invented, and the consequences are dire. 

What makes Omegle special in comparison to other platforms is how vast its affordance of anonymity was. There was no need to give out any information about yourself, besides clicking “Yes, I am over 18” before entering the site. This is what gave Omegles users the space to behave in the most depraved ways. No personal information, no usernames, no accountability.  

The age of innocence is over. It has been for a while, actually. Many platforms have dealt with the same issues that led to Omegle's death. A couple of years ago many “comedians” on the platform were under scrutiny for making use of blackface and/or pedophilic jokes in comedic content (e.g. Shane Dawson and the Fine Bros’ “Hey Its Milly” to mention a couple). Tumblr had its issues with the promotion of self-harm. Tiktok has plenty of incel and trad recruitment scandals. All in all, there is something very unwholesome about our wholesome little global village and maybe that's why we don’t hear that sentiment anymore.

I know it's for the greater good. Nevertheless, speaking mostly for millennials and older Gen-z’ers, those of us who have the luck of not falling victim to the depravities of some of this platform's users, those of us who did enjoy the platform for what it was originally meant to be: Omegle… you will be missed. RIP Omegle, November 8th 2023.