How Omegle made a quarantine comeback
Come for the masturbating strangers, stay for a moment of meaningful connection in a lonely, isolated world
Screencap via YouTube
When clubs across the UK closed in March, 21-year-old Amber turned to a surprising alternative to meeting randoms in the smoking area: Omegle. “I really missed being out in clubs and meeting loads of new people, so I thought, ‘I’ll just go on Omegle’ and then I actually met some really nice people, so I just started using it quite a bit,” she explains. “There was a two-week period where I went on it every night.”
For most of us, the 2009-born video chat room site Omegle is a distant memory of randomised online lawlessness and Chatroulette-style anonymous nudes, but the site saw a wave of popularity over lockdown, with a monthly traffic increase of 10 million between February and May. It’s part of a wave of early 00s nostalgia — which also includes dancing to “Love Story” by Taylor Swift and the Twilight movies — currently exploding in popularity on TikTok (where else).
For YouTubers and TikTokers alike, Omegle was the solution to a content drought without the ability to film with people outside of their household. Eric Tabach, a content creator with over 200k subscribers, now has an ongoing Omegle series on his channel, including a video where he spent 24 hours on the site. “A lot of my content before quarantine was interacting with strangers and people, and then the moment quarantine hit there was just no way to find the stranger,” he says. “I remember Omegle videos being so popular when I was a kid, so then it obviously just felt like the most ideal way to make content.”
“What’s fascinating about Omegle is it’s one of the easiest things to get content out of,” Eric continues. “A lot of times people on camera are scared, and the best content comes when people are fearless, and I think Omegle allows people to be super fearless because they can say whatever they like and it feels like there’s no repercussions, you can just ‘next’ people.”
Cyberpsychologist Dr Joanne Meredith says part of the renewed popularity of sites like Omegle is down to a phenomenon known as ‘the online disinhibition effect’: “Due to various features of online interaction (including dissociative imagination — the view that the online world is a kind of game) people become less inhibited and behave in ways that they would not normally,” she explains. This effect could be heightened by the ‘no strings attached’ sense Omegle has compared to traditional social media, which requires a more long-term, transparent performance of identity.
For those who came of age during the uber-curated age of the influencer, the relative chaos of Omegle is also enticing. TikToker Jufu, for instance, has a 100+ part series where he records his experiences on the site, which he started just as social distancing was introduced. “I have a very diverse audience of all ages, literally ranging from probably seven up to 27, so I’ve definitely seen everyone along the age spectrum on Omegle and I would say the younger ones probably didn’t know what it was until my videos,” he explains.
“As people started to fall in love with the series on TikTok, I started to tell people to watch my Snapchat to see when I’m going to be on Omegle,” Jufu continues. “Whenever I would tell people when I would be on, it would be thousands of people just getting on the platform to try to find me.” In a pre-pandemic world, fans would drag their mums to wait outside stage doors for a glimpse of their heroes. Now repeatedly hitting ‘next’ on Omegle will suffice.
Setting “TikTok” as a “common interest” on Omegle — which matches you to others with the same interests around the world — does result in a way more PG13 experience than the rest of the NSFW site. Rather than a stranger masturbating on cam, you’ll more likely connect with teens looking to chat and make content together which just might blow up on the FYP. And for some, Omegle is more than just the potential of a funny video, it’s a lifeline which provided social interaction during lockdown, when many were at their loneliest. Though Amber initially went online to fill the clubbing void, she found way more meaningful convos on Omegle than those 3am ‘I can’t hear you over the music’ ones: “I think the first person I connected with was like three guys who are my age from Brighton, and they were just really cool and chill so that's why I decided to stay on it,” she says.
“Digital platforms have come into their own during this period,” explains Dr Meredith. “We know that being able to interact with others is so important for our wellbeing, and so this is definitely a positive of the use of digital platforms. You can feel more comfortable talking to people online, who are strangers to you, and so you divulge things you might not in other contexts. People speaking to strangers online can actually form a relationship with them much more quickly.”
And thanks to the new influx of people to Omegle, it’s does seem to have become easier to find genuine interactions from across the world. Eric recounts how he came across an Australian man who was looking to learn more about US politics by speaking to people about their views. “My mom ended up having a 20-minute super constructive political conversation,” he says. “The last thing you would expect is for two educated, grown people to have a smart conversation on that website. Then we pressed next and it was just a penis.” They do say life’s all about a balance.
Of course, it’s not all teenagers using Omegle, and some older millennials are rediscovering the site to reconnect with their simpler, often happier teenage years. “Research has shown that people become more nostalgic when facing threats or when lonely, in order to psychologically manage these unpleasant states,” explains Dr Jacob Juhl, a nostalgia psychologist at the University of Southampton. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a threat and many people have remained in lockdown while at home alone. Thus, it stands to reason that people may turn to nostalgia to help cope with the pandemic.”
So, although it’s easy to remember Omegle only as the site your mum wouldn’t let you go on at sleepovers, it’s clearly paid a key part in the lockdown experience for many. And it’s even pivoted a career or two along the way. “I'm not really focused on any of the negative aspects of Omegle. I'm just really focused on meeting people and connecting with people and spreading positivity,” reflects Jufu. Sounds like what 2020 needs, honestly.