Omegle, the anonymous video chat service founded in 2009, was shut down on Wednesday night. Created by Leif K-Brooks, the site allowed people to video chat with random strangers online, and had a strained reputation almost from its launch. Over the years, the website has been mired in controversy, including reports of discrimination and sexual abuse of minors. Citing increased scrutiny of the website, K-Brooks said that operating Omegle “was no longer sustainable, financially nor psychologically,” in a message on the site.
Those who grew up and around the internet likely know Omegle. As far as internet institutions go, it was a popular website, and the rare example of a site that outlasted other contemporaries in the public conscience, like MySpace. According to K-Brooks’ statement about the closure, the website reached “millions of daily users” at one point. That volume of interaction made the chat service the source of equal amounts of internet humor, with moments captured in Omegle chats forming the basis for memes and jokes that have endured for years.
For K-Brooks, Omegle was more than just a meme generator or traffic giant. Since launching the site when he was only 18 years old, the programmer believed Omegle could represent an ideal way to interact with the world. “If you didn’t want to talk to a particular person, for whatever reason, you could simply end the chat and — if desired — move onto another chat with someone else. It was the idea of ‘meeting new people’ distilled down to almost its platonic ideal,” he wrote.
The founder stressed that he tried to implement “reasonable measures” to combat misuse of the platform and that the employees at the website worked with law enforcement to “help put evildoers in prison where they belong.” But he said, in a bit of palpable exhaustion, that “the fight against crime isn’t one that can ever truly be won.”
In reflecting on Omegle’s closure, K-Brooks’ musing takes the shape of a treatise on the state of the internet and the way we address crime. At the end, K-Brooks made a very passionate case for the preservation of virtual spaces like Omegle.
I’ve done my best to weather the attacks, with the interests of Omegle’s users – and the broader principle – in mind. If something as simple as meeting random new people is forbidden, what’s next? That is far and away removed from anything that could be considered a reasonable compromise of the principle I outlined. Analogies are a limited tool, but a physical-world analogy might be shutting down Central Park because crime occurs there – or perhaps more provocatively, destroying the universe because it contains evil. A healthy, free society cannot endure when we are collectively afraid of each other to this extent.
Unfortunately, what is right doesn’t always prevail. As much as I wish circumstances were different, the stress and expense of this fight – coupled with the existing stress and expense of operating Omegle, and fighting its misuse – are simply too much. Operating Omegle is no longer sustainable, financially nor psychologically. Frankly, I don’t want to have a heart attack in my 30s.
Omegle’s closure is effective immediately. In his sign-off, K-Brooks urged his users to donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation before stepping away on a down note: “I’m so sorry I couldn’t keep fighting for you.”