Romain Degrave first discovered Omegle three years ago, when he was still in high school. Since its inception in 2009, the online service, which randomly pairs strangers for anonymous video chat sessions, had been connecting users across the globe for moments of discovery, whimsy, cross-cultural exchange and political debate.
The delight of Omegle was in its randomization: with the click of a button, at any moment, you could be connected with a complete stranger while in the comfort and safety of your own home, and — unlike with a conversation in the real world — you had the option of ending that encounter at any time, the second it got boring or uncomfortable or weird. On Omegle, you could meet a new best friend, the love of your life or a skilled debater who could effectively challenge your misconceptions and assumptions.
Unfortunately, this randomization meant users could also be connected with more dangerous people, even sexual predators — a scourge all the content moderators in the world couldn’t entirely eradicate or protect users from.
That’s one of the reasons Omegle’s owner, a Vermonter named Leif K-Brooks, abruptly decided to shutter the service on Thursday, after nearly 15 years of operation. In his farewell note, Mr. K-Brooks, who created Omegle when he was 18 years old, acknowledged that the service had become a haven for criminal activity, but also issued a call to arms, to stop what he sees as the toxic trajectory of today’s internet.
“Unless the tide turns soon, the internet I fell in love with may cease to exist, and 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,” Mr. K-Brooks wrote. Mr. K-Brooks did not respond to a request for comment.
For Mr. Degrave, a 21-year-old content creator living in Montpelier, France, Omegle’s sudden shuttering was a blow not just to the nature and quality of the time he spends on the internet, but to his livelihood. Mr. Degrave creates improvisational content for TikTok, filming his charming, hilarious and uncomfortable interactions with strangers on Omegle and posting them to the hosting service, where they receive many views. His so-called signature move is using his French charisma (or “rizz,” as the kids call it) to flirt with other users. He’s created more than 300 of these videos, which have earned him nearly 265,000 followers.
Funny, shocking or scandalous, Omegle exchanges are some of TikTok’s bread and butter. (This one, where two men who both happen to be dressed as women are randomly matched and challenge each other to do “girl voices,” was an early viral hit and is one of the most well known of the #omegle genre.) The #omegle hashtag on TikTok has more than 11.5 billion views, and has been especially popular among polyglots like Ryan Hale, who create videos by surprising unsuspecting strangers with the ability to speak their language, no matter how rare.
Users like Mr. Degrave, or the creator who goes by the name Slow Sush, who has more than 3 million followers on TikTok, have amassed large followings based almost entirely on their Omegle content.
In September, Mr. Degrave made Omegle content creation on TikTok his full time job. Now, he and other Omegle content creators are on the hunt for another platform that will allow them to continue to connect with strangers anonymously.
“It’s pretty hard to know what I will do next,” Mr. Degrave said. “I was shocked at first. It was totally random. Last night I was recording on Omegle and a few hours after that it was shut down. I’m trying to define what I will do now, but it’s pretty hard to know. I still want to do the same content around improvisation, but I don’t really know.”
Mr. Degrave said OmeTV, another randomized video chat tool, could possibly help fill the void, but that it doesn’t have the same community and atmosphere as Omegle did. OmeTV is also not anonymous, requiring users to log in with their credentials for Facebook or VK, a Russian social media platform.
“On Omegle I can have long talks that last multiple hours and the other apps don’t have that kind of aspect,” Mr. Degrave said. “I have a lot of good memories on Omegle. I met my ex there. I also met one of my best friends. I started my career. Omegle brought me a lot of things.”