Omegle’s death is the end of an era for anonymous online connection

After 14 years online, Omegle shut down as part of a settlement in a $22 million sex trafficking lawsuit. If anything was a surprise, it was that the anonymous, randomized chat site was still operational. In a time when multibillion-dollar companies nitpick the rules about “female-presenting nipples” and “non-sexually graphic dancing,” how could a website notorious for its rogue penises still exist?

“I had just been talking with my friends about this, and once we heard the news, we were all like, ‘Oh man, [Omegle] was an institution,' for better or for worse,” said Brendan Mahoney, a PhD candidate studying internet culture at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications. “I know multiple people who have mentioned in the past few days that Omegle was the first place they saw a penis.”

This wasn’t a unique experience. Instead of messing around with Ouija boards to frighten each other at sleepovers, those of us who grew up online turned to Omegle. In middle school, my friends and I would crowd around a bulky desktop PC and go on the anonymous chat site, where we would be paired into a video call with a random stranger -- and oftentimes, that stranger was a headless figure sitting in an office chair, wearing nothing but a t-shirt.

Stripped of all context and consequences, the anonymity afforded by Omegle enabled the worst behaviors imaginable. But sometimes, the platform fostered positive connections.

“Over the years, people have used Omegle to explore foreign cultures; to get advice about their lives from impartial third parties; and to help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation. I’ve even heard stories of soulmates meeting on Omegle, and getting married. Those are only some of the highlights,” founder Leif K-Brooks wrote in a manifesto about the site's shutdown, which now occupies Omegle's homepage. “Unfortunately, there are also lowlights. Virtually every tool can be used for good or for evil, and that is especially true of communication tools, due to their innate flexibility.”

As K-Brooks notes, Omegle wasn’t all indecency, despite our dominant memories of phallic jump-scares. During pandemic lockdowns in 2020, a friend of mine reached such a level of boredom that she navigated back to Omegle (overall, the site saw a boom in its user numbers during this time). My friend ended up talking to a stranger about his dating woes, so she asked to workshop his Tinder profile -- what else was there to do in lockdown? We’ll never know if her advice worked, but I’d like to believe this stranger scored a hot quarantine date after a fateful Omegle meeting.

“I think it’s kind of a bastion of an earlier version of the internet,” Mahoney told TechCrunch. “There are not a lot of sites left that really afford you that kind of privacy, that kind of anonymity. You really have to go and use a VPN and a Tor browser to fully remove your identity in a way that a website can track."

But the double-edged sword of online behavior is intensified on platforms like Omegle, where all interactions are anonymous and ephemeral. Over time, Omegle implemented tools like an AI content moderation system to detect nudity, and it changed the platform rules to prohibit minors from accessing the site. Still, in the era of dominant social platforms -- where almost all of our online interactions are filtered through tech monoliths like Meta, Google and Amazon -- this ability to be fully anonymous is slipping from our grasp. An anonymous Instagram account, for example, is linked to an email address, which is linked to a recovery phone number, which is linked to a telecommunications company, and so on.

“I think in a lot of ways, that’s really what the emergence of the platformed internet was set up to do,” Mahoney said. “It became this place that had these institutions that could verify people’s identities, that were responsible for moderating content, and making these spaces that people felt safe using.”

Even on platforms like Reddit and Tumblr, where you can easily be pseudonymous, there’s a context that makes antisocial behaviors less permissible. If you are consistently making vile comments in a Subreddit, other users can see your posting history and know that you’re not engaging in good faith. Or, if you meet a stranger on Tumblr, you can make some attempt to suss out their values and interests by looking at their blog and who they interact with. On Omegle, this was never the case -- back in the day, you didn't even need to register for an account with an email address or screen name. You were simply presented to your chat partner with the name “stranger.”

“Anonymity online is something that allows you to do socially risky things, and that’s not necessarily good or bad objectively,” Mahoney told TechCrunch. He notes that while this concept literally inspired the name of the hacktivist movement Anonymous, it has also lent itself to far-right conspiracy theories like QAnon. Still, Mahoney says, “[Anonymity] has also been important in mobilizing against dictatorial regimes, where having your name attached to online statements can get you arrested.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) -- which K-Brooks urges readers to donate to in his farewell manifesto -- has sought to protect this kind of anonymity, which is becoming increasingly rare online.

“Whistleblowers report news that companies and governments would prefer to suppress; human rights workers struggle against repressive governments; parents try to create a safe way for children to explore; victims of domestic violence attempt to rebuild their lives where abusers cannot follow,” the EFF writes on its website.

So, where do we draw the line? I shouldn’t have been confronted with real-time video of men masturbating when I was a preteen, yet it’s also stomach-churning to imagine a world where politically oppressed people are unable to use the internet to speak truth to power and advocate for their freedom.

Websites like Omegle will become more and more rare, especially as several pieces of age-gating internet legislation -- which can require verification of drivers’ licenses to access certain websites -- continue to circulate Congress. And, perhaps, Omegle should never have existed. But while some of K-Brooks’ statements in his farewell letter gloss over the vile dangers the platform presented, he raises some valid concerns.

“I worry that, unless the tide turns soon, the Internet I fell in love with may cease to exist,” he writes. “...In its place, we will have something closer to a souped-up version of TV -- focused largely on passive consumption, with much less opportunity for active participation and genuine human connection.”