Updated: Apr 18
Words by Sebastian Frame
‘Video is Monitored. Keep it Clean!’ A couple of months ago, some friends and I hooked up our laptops to a plasma TV and we went on Omegle; a website that lets you talk to strangers across the world in the form of quick video-chats. Breaking through our well-known innate modern-day human security settings of only speaking to people we know online, it broke through a common default setting of ours. We engaged in some unfamiliar yet mind-opening Pandoras-Box-type conservations and met an interesting series of characters - whom we'd definitely never have crossed paths with - including an Israeli Likud supporter, an indie rocker in South Carolina, a white rapper in Florida and a metalhead in Brazil who merrily enjoyed our silly jokes. It was during this last particular session I truly felt a genuinely deep feeling of connection with the world (as fucking cheesy as that sounds), and I walked away from my Omegle experience surprisingly impressed by the way people can reach out to each other across such vast distances and still be able to connect in such a genuine way.
But then I thought, wait; not so fast. Is that it? I admit I felt eye-opened and positive about the experience but also, somehow tainted, especially after May 8th 2020. It was on that night that I experienced an odd moment on the Omegle chat room with a person known as ‘The Hooded Gamer’; a Guy Fawkes mask-wearing individual adorning huge headphones languished over a stark, black hood. After connecting and introducing myself to no avail, he suddenly reared his gaze from under his hood and blankly stared at me with milk-blue vacant eyes and began typing, reading right-side screen laterally as: ‘Stockport?’
I froze a moment, for no other reason than I was actually a resident of Stockport, went to school in Bramhall, played school sports across the county, and had the misfortune of suffering both an older and younger brother in secondary school. I felt somehow, strangely, vulnerable and threatened; violated at a stretch or at least a victim of a violation of trust; a betrayal of the unspoken guaranteed anonymity any user would expect when using a website with an audience spanning countries. After reading the message and my eyes visibly widened in horror, he quickly left the chat and disappeared forever, into the pixelated mist of the world wide web. (I’m still awaiting my untimely death at the hands of 'The Hooded Gamer'.)
For a website created by an eighteen-year-old in the late 2000s, Omegle has particular features that tap into our innate desire to connect with people that are both attractive and easily accessible. Access to Omegle is easy, requiring only a camera on your computer and an internet search and from there you can go on it without requiring an account or payment to receive full access. Using the website is effortless, with the user having the ability to leave the chat at any moment, with a simple click of the mouse, the user can hop from conversation-to-conversation quickly, emulating a weird kind of speed dating simulation a la Chat Roulette that avoids the possible awkwardness of having to leave a real-life conversation abruptly. These video chats also come with a text chat that plays alongside the video, providing the user with the option to speak through text as opposed to using their voice, which for some people might be too revealing on this anonymous platform.
With these thoughts in mind, with the technology at my disposal and this whole pandemic business going on, I felt it fitting to delve back into the world of Omegle and check on the state of the world since I was last on it. My reasoning: what better way to find an unbiased worldview than through an unfiltered worldwide view of it all as expressed on an online chat website? What clarity could this slightly darker medium offer that more conventional websites don’t?
I soon had some answers. After a few hours online it began to dawn on me that Omegle was far from a teenager’s simple social experiment. The primary demographic for Omegle became blatantly apparent: geriatric chronic masturbators. I don’t really know what else I expected from an anonymous online chatroom because it is quite literally the ideally suited platform for perverts. I realised that when exploring Omegle, one must prepare themselves for the barrage of that of the phallic variety that fly your way, because let’s face it; in anonymity, people let their freaky side out.
However, In order to get to the worthwhile interactions (though who am I presume what you’re looking for?), flicking through videos of people wanking is sort of a necessary component to finding those people in search of conversation; there are no other options. Aside from the endless sea of the aforementioned, I met the same level of interesting people as I had done before in my first session. There was the handsome magician in Venezuela who couldn’t find his playing cards, a stoner in Texas who played the violin live for me - with gusto - and a French guy screaming at his mother in the other room about what she had mistakenly chosen for tea that evening. Again, these interactions really did make me feel this strange sense of oneness with it all: an intuitive sense that even in the chaos that reigns in these "Coronatimes", there is a sort of comfort just knowing that in this period of isolation, remotely distanced people across the globe can come together and be kind to each other, especially when they have the choice not to. The secret was to look beyond the primary use of the site.
Presuming before that Omegle merely consisted of two distinct types of interactions (creepy or pleasant), there was an unexpected demographic in these online chats that I found particularly upsetting when clicking through; children. As discussed in an article titled ‘A Chat with Strangers: Fun or Dangerous?’ on NoBullying.com, the 18-year-old age limit for user access to what are deemed inappropriate websites is ‘very loosely enforced’, meaning children of any age have access to the wide array of pornographic material that prevails on the site and on numerous others. Though the website has barriers on the areas that are ‘18+’, there is no block on entering these zones, and the areas which are claimed to be ‘safe’ are still used by people to engage in online explicit activities.
It saddened me to see the growing number of guidance-neglected children that were online, kids clearly not in the view of their parents on any one of their home computers; left to their own devices. In a world where once the Internet was professed as a game for everyone to play, it’s tragic to see that some people are still so ignorant as to the lax controls of access to these sites. It’s sad to think that there are more parents than we think that let their children access whatever sites they are curious about, not realising the damage it could cause.
My final assessment of Omegle is truly mixed. It is a website of extremes; chats can evoke feelings of having been entertained, intrigued or disgusted. Whether I venture back into the world of Omegle is something I will now have to ponder; there are parts of it that are simply unpleasant, yet others that accurately reflect the depths of people’s more quirky nature. I appreciate that as a product created by an eighteen-year-old in the late noughties, Omegle is a good example of my own generation’s continuous questioning of what constitutes a person’s right to define themselves, the importance of listening to voices of dissidence and trying to understand who ultimately tailors the ever-changing tapestry of the world’s social constructs. Omegle is somewhat decadent, highly irreverent, and disturbingly fascinating. Whether numbed by Covid-19 boredom or out of sheer curiosity in what we all agree are trying times, consider dipping your toe into the weird wild world of Omegle; you might be unpleasantly surprised.