By Taylor Lorenz
First there was the Zoom boom, followed quickly by Zoom fatigue. Then everyone became a gamer, inviting visitors to their virtual islands and sending friends digital gifts. There were raves, meetings, meditations and movie nights, all of which took place on the internet.
Now, months later and with no sign of the virus’ end in sight, it seems we’ve reached the taking-to-strangers online stage of boredom and isolation.
Omegle, a website that pairs random visitors through video and text chat, has spiked in popularity over the last four months. (“did i miss something why is everyone on omegle?” one person recently tweeted.) The site is similar to the once wildly popular Chatroulette, which is also experiencing a renaissance of sorts, in that it is free, requires no registration and promises a surprising social experience.
Visitors can submit keywords to filter for people with shared interests. Those in college can enter a .edu email address, which the site uses for verification, to find other students. There is also, predictably, an “adult” section.
Though the site has been around for more than a decade (it was founded in 2009, a few months before Chatroulette, by tech entrepreneur Leif K-Brooks, who was 18 at the time and did not respond to a request for an interview), it has recently seen a resurgence, particularly with teenagers feeling alienated by months of remote learning and limited face-to-face socializing.
“I’ve seen the same people for the past several months and done the same things,” said YouTuber Cole Giannasca, 18. “The newness and the possibility of meeting anyone in the world seemed so much better now than it would have before quarantine.”
Recordings of Omegle videos have helped creators generate content on other platforms and go viral. YouTubers have garnered millions of views on videos about delving into Omegle’s “adult” section (for people 18 and older), fighting bullies on Omegle, cosplaying on Omegle, pretending to be celebrities on Omegle, sitting on Omegle for 24 and even 48 hours straight, and more.
Omegle has been a boon for Gen Z influencers, who have used the site to host impromptu virtual meet-and-greets and events. YouTube star Emma Chamberlain threw herself an Omegle birthday party in May. Many TikTok stars have been using Omegle to surprise fans who are looking for fellow enthusiasts on the site through its filters. “Everyone started selecting TikTokers,” said Michael Le, a 20-year-old TikTok star with nearly 35 million followers. Often, the influencers live-stream their fans’ reactions on TikTok.
“It’s like a giant speed dating game with your fans,” said Alex Warren, 19, a YouTuber and member of the Hype House.
Nailea Devora, an 18-year-old YouTuber, described Omegle as “like walking around a big mall, trying to see your favorite creator. You can put anyone’s name in and try to find them. It’s been really popular for TikTokers to search their names and see the fans’ reaction when they see them pop up onscreen. It’s a big trend.”
Le said he tried Omegle for the first time about a month ago. “You never know what will happen,” he said. “We made jokes with other people and just had fun. We just captured their reactions and edited into a lighthearted video. It was little 9-year-old kids being like, ‘OMG, this is you! I’ve seen you on the For You page!’ ”
Brooke Sabey, 21, a YouTuber who reposts her Omegle content to TikTok, said the platform has gained traction recently in part because recording videos with other people has become difficult during the pandemic. “I take my YouTube Omegle videos and clip them to upload them to TikTok,” Sabey said. “I’m thinking of doing live Omegle content on TikTok.”
“As a talent manager, my goal is to grow people’s audience,” said Walid Mohammed, a 20-year-old talent manager and content strategist. “One way I think I can do that is with Omegle content, especially right now because it’s so hot.” Influencers sign on to Omegle and pretend to be celebrities, conduct man-on-the-street-style interviews, play guessing games and joke with people, then film their reactions.
The site has a Web 2.0 aesthetic and includes several unsubtle political messages. Omegle’s home page leads with a “public service announcement” comparing President Xi Jinping of China to Winnie the Pooh. And in every chat box, a line appears at the top urging visitors to “say STAND WITH HONG KONG AGAINST THE CCP!”
Much like Chatroulette and other sites that randomly pair visitors, there can be unpleasant surprises of the explicit variety. On its home page, the company states that “predators have been known to use Omegle, so please be careful.”
“There’s the shock factor of it all,” Devora said. “There’s a lot of sexual porn stuff. We just film our reactions, like, ‘OMG, I didn’t want to see that!’ People are intrigued to see what happens next and what the next stranger might do. I think the majority of us are just teenagers looking to meet people, but it can get weird and dark.”
As a whole, the site offers a sample of the internet’s strange and varied interests. “In one video, I met a lady and she has a duck,” Devora said. “She’s just holding a duck, and the duck has a diaper on.”