Zoom Is Dead. Long Live Houseparty
Video chat platform Houseparty is now the number one app in the iOS store in Australia, Canada, and the U.K.
Last Saturday night, Jason Shaverin, a 36-year-old project manager in London, spent three hours talking to friends on Houseparty, a FaceTime meets Zoom meets trivia–style app that’s been blowing up since the global coronavirus pandemic forced millions into isolation.
“It got hectic,” he says. Houseparty lets you chat with eight people at a time, but it reshuffles the screen every time people enter or leave and often obscures the screen with trivia questions. “There were 16 people on a call at one point, as they were all in couples,” Shaverin says. “I used the app on my iPad to keep track of them all.”
Houseparty has seen user numbers skyrocket in the past three weeks.
Living under lockdown is changing the way people communicate. For those still employed, work video calls have become a fact of life. Shares in Zoom, a popular video calling platform, are up 117% over the past three months. Zoom has been embraced across sectors, from education to fitness, with Zoom lessons, Zoom yoga, Zoom book clubs, and more. The rise of Zoom has inspired dozens of essays and how-to guides on Zoom etiquette and best practices. For many, a Zoom appointment in their calendar goes some way to replace the scheduled theater, sports, and social events that would normally be there. No wonder Zoom is the number one most downloaded free app in the United States in the iOS and Android app stores.
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But in the past few weeks, another videoconferencing app has emerged as a favorite for casual hangouts and catch-ups: Houseparty. Though the app first launched in 2016, Houseparty has seen user numbers skyrocket in the past three weeks — from around 130,000 downloads a week in February 2020 to around 2 million downloads last week, according to data from App Annie. It’s the sixth most downloaded free app in the U.S. iOS store and number one in New Zealand, Canadian, and U.K. iOS stores.
That’s a surprising turn of events for an app that’s had a tough time gaining traction over the past four years, competing with TikTok, Snapchat, Dubsmash, WhatsApp, and more for user eyeballs. Ben Rubin, former CEO of livestreaming app Meerkat, and Sima Sistani, former head of media at Tumblr, founded the app as a platform for freeform social gatherings. “We’re moving away from calling to this party paradigm,” Sistani told Business Insider in 2016. In June 2019, Epic Games, creator of Fortnite and the Unreal Engine, purchased Houseparty for an undisclosed sum.
The app offers a more organic way to communicate than Zoom—and it’s more playful. “The best part about Houseparty is when it’s somebody I don’t really speak to and suddenly I’m having a video conversation with them! We’re locked in a house, and it’s fun,” Shaverin says.
When joining Houseparty, the app asks permission to connect with your contacts and social networks so it can add existing contacts to your friends list. Opening the app signals that you’re around and free to talk and displays a list of friends who are online and “live” parties you can join. There’s a dropdown tab for games, which include HeadsUp, trivia, and Quick Draw!
Shaverin doesn’t see the app as a replacement for Zoom, but as a more laid-back alternative. He still uses Zoom for business and scheduled social events. “I’m attending a Zoom birthday party this Thursday,” he says. “They sent out invitations, a playlist, a drinks menu, everything.” For Shaverin, Zoom’s a more formal way to connect with friends — it’s a scheduled, rather than spontaneous, meetup. Up to 100 people can be on a Zoom call on its free plan; enterprise plans allow for more than 1,000 people. The platform can support bigger groups than Houseparty, but it’s still exclusive, because everyone needs the meeting link or ID to access it.
“My sister’s manager added her on Houseparty. Was she monitoring her?”
Rajat Jain, a digital health data scientist from London, joined Houseparty a week ago, when a friend sent him an invite. “I love it, as it’s so spontaneous. There’s no scheduling. There’s always tons of people joining in,” he says. “I thought Houseparty was an app for preteens — my 10-year-old cousin uses it!”
Jain generally keeps a low social media profile to maintain his privacy but has been less strict during the lockdown. “In the context of the coronavirus and everyone being isolated at home, I don’t care.”
Still, he maintains some boundaries. Jain hasn’t added his manager to the app, for one. “If you add your employers, then they can see when you’re just hanging out in your house,” he says. “My sister’s manager added her on Houseparty. Was she monitoring her?” he says.
Jain doesn’t think the app is perfect. He’s found that some of the built-in games don’t work if people haven’t updated their software—Houseparty’s available as a mobile app, a Chrome extension, and a macOS app—so not everyone can play. And he finds it weird that everyone he’s connected to on the app can see who he’s talking to in a “houseparty.” (Houseparty does offer users the option to start private conversations by limiting attendees, but it’s not the platform’s default.) These issues haven’t stopped him from using it. “I’ll be on it anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours a day,” Jain says.
For Danielle Someck, who’s dealing with an unexpected extension of her maternity leave from her marketing job, Houseparty offers a diversion. “It’s so easy to use,” she says. “And I like seeing everyone pop up. I use Zoom for my mother’s group, and I have to remember to check the ID, which makes it feel more formal, like a business meeting.”
Someck isn’t worried about her privacy on Houseparty — though she has witnessed some snafus. “A friend didn’t lock his room when he was speaking to his girlfriend, and it was funny when we jumped into his call,” she says.
With the coronavirus exacerbating mental health issues, anxiety, and a sense of loneliness, Houseparty offers a quick way to connect.
“I was worried about people being more isolated than ever,” Jain says. “But tech is actually filling that gap. Everyone wants to talk. Everyone wants to socialize.”