It’s 2:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday night, and Sam, a pseudonymous 28-year-old from Seattle, is telling me why he’s spent the past couple of hours online trying to have casual conversations with strangers — with his erect dick and balls out. He’s also happily sharing his trade secrets. “Most guys focus their webcam on their dick or zoom into the dick area,” he explains. Sam, however, has a different strategy — i.e., showing his face and upper body, too. “That way, people who come across me will know I’m an actual person. They’re more likely to talk and not just hit the next button.”
Throughout all of this, his penis, which takes up about half the screen, dangles before my eyes.
I came across Sam on Omegle, a video-based social network that became notorious in the late 2000s for connecting you to random people on the internet via their webcams. It was originally designed to work in the same way as professional video-conferencing software, and when it was first released, it was hailed as revolutionary. At the time, video messaging was slow and grainy; Omegle and its counterpart Chatroulette, however, provided much higher compression speeds, resulting in clearer, faster webcam broadcasting.
Most people my age, though, mostly remember it for one thing: dicks.
So much so that it became a genre of content in and of itself. There are countless videos made by women counting the number of dicks they came across on Omegle, as well as YouTube “challenges” where people try to come across 100 dicks in one session — something, of course, that doesn’t take that long.
As for my couple of recent hours on the site, I found at least a dozen guys who were actively — even violently — beating their meat until I broke the connection. Others, however, were more like Sam — dudes doing normal things like playing Nintendo DS, reading comic books and eating a bowl of noodles, just with their dick and balls on full display.
For his part, Sam had multiple reasons why his dick and balls were out. But this is his simplest answer: “If you want to get people talking on Omegle, you kind of have to do it, because it’s what people expect.” That said, if he sees someone he thinks is a minor, he’ll immediately disconnect the chat. He also has a strict no masturbation rule — for both himself and those he connects with. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m doing something creepy and sexual that grosses them out,” he tells me.
I remind Sam, though, that his dick is, in fact, out, and so, some people might consider that to be gross by default — and possibly, sexual harassment. “Why would they come on Omegle, then?” he responds.
It sounds crazy, but Sam’s argument has been echoed by other Omegle and Chatroulette users. As Verge reporter Megan Farokhmanesh reported in 2018, since these services still afford better anonymity than Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, voyeurism is naturally going to be more rampant there, especially when “there’s freedom in knowing you’ve never met this person and probably never will.”
She added that while men on both services claim that they mainly want to speak to women (which they make abundantly clear when they cut off the chat as soon as they discover you’re male), there are a number of guys who actively jerk off to other guys — something that pretty much every dude I speak to knew about, and didn’t think much of.
“Yeah, I mean, it can be kinda weird, especially if they cum,” says twentysomething Mike (another pseudonym). Mike, who lives in Switzerland and is completely clothed when I briefly speak to him, has been using Omegle since his teens, usually for 10 minutes every couple of weeks when he’s bored. He tells me that it can be good at finding partners to play video games with. Beyond that, though, he describes Omegle as the place you go to if you want to see a guy rub one out to you. “There are some guys on there who do it just to freak out other guys,” he tells me. “And there are probably guys who do get off on [masturbating] to strangers and men they don’t know.”
Both Chatroulette and Omegle didn’t respond to my interview requests, but they do require users to consent to a code of conduct and be over the age of 18 if they want to use the services. Obviously, these are easy hurdles to get around — each have faced more than a decade’s worth of criticism, for everything from privacy issues to exploitation of women and minors — and pretty much everyone agrees this is a problem. “I sometimes browse through [Chatroulette], and every 20 or so people you pass, you’ll come across an actual kid who lives somewhere in Russia who is shirtless,” one guy tells me. “That’s when I slam my laptop shut and go to sleep. Like, I don’t want to go further than that. It’s also why I use a VPN whenever I’m on the site.”
At the same time, the guys I interview seem to appreciate — and are oddly protective of — the sites that allow them to freely roam with their junk out. If anything, they were far more wary of internet service providers or governments monitoring their online activity.
Still with his dick out, Sam tells me about his nostalgia for “crazy spaces on the internet” where you could see “really gross, weird and disturbing stuff, and you’d make friends and be part of a bigger community,” an arrangement he believes doesn’t exist anymore, largely because of how much of the web Google and Facebook own. Basically, for Sam, having his dick out on Omegle has less to do with sexual pleasure. It’s about standing up for a version of the internet he grew up with.
“I wouldn’t say it’s exactly free speech,” Sam laughs. “But I believe it’s important to have places online where you can see things that shock you. As long as you’re aware what is there and nobody is doing anything they don’t want to do, it should exist and it should be free for anyone to use.”
With that, Sam leans in front of his camera, and I can hear the tip of his penis stroking his keyboard — a kind of ASMR that I neither expected nor signed up for. I thank him for his time, finish our connection and make myself a cup of green tea.
When I return to my desk, ready to call it a night, I forget that Omegle is still running. In the two minutes I stay on, I see six different dicks, including one particularly shiny one that is seemingly covered in… well, I can guess.
It has been, I presume, a successful night for both of us.