As much of the world retreated into coronavirus lockdown at the weekend, it looked as though many people’s favourite activities were going to disappear with them: evening drinks, birthday parties, casual dinners with friends.
But then came the viral video chat app Houseparty.
“I’ve been to three or four different parties in one night,” said Andrew, a 30-year-old advertising executive, of the app, which allows users to congregate spontaneously with their friends via video hangout to carry out their usual social activities – just virtually.
As millions of people have been told to stay at home in an unprecedented bid to curb the spread of the virus, Houseparty has become an overnight sensation – not only among company-starved millennials and Generation Z teenagers – but also their parents.
Last week alone, the San Francisco-based app, which is owned by Fortnite developer Epic Games, raked in two million downloads worldwide, compared with about 130,000 the same week a month ago, according to data from App Annie. It currently ranks at number one in the Apple app store in 17 countries including the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy.
“[Houseparty’s popularity] seems to have followed coronavirus around the globe,” said 26-year-old copywriter Miranda di Carcaci, who noticed a couple of weeks ago that many of her friends in Italy were sharing screenshots on social media of themselves socialising via a video chat app, with groups laughing and sipping glasses of wine from behind their phones.
Considered the more casual and kitsch alternative to rapidly growing video conferencing apps such as Zoom or Google Hangouts, Houseparty has already prompted a new set of social rituals. This weekend, many under lockdown enjoyed dinners and drinks – dubbed "AperiTV" by some – together over the app, while teams at Silicon Valley companies used it to hold "virtual happy hours".
"Houseparty has a big base around teenagers and always has," said Ben Rubin, Houseparty's co-founder, who left the company at the time of its acquisition to work as an entrepreneur-in-residence at venture capital firm Benchmark. "[But] with everything that's going on, a bunch of adults now have the time and need for new connections."
Launched in September 2016, Houseparty has focused on enabling what it calls “shared experiences”, offering in-app games such as trivia or screen-sharing services that allow friends to go on dating apps or watch TV programmes together, for example. Users spend an hour on average in the app.
In particular, many are attracted by the spontaneity the format enables: in an effort to mimic an actual house party, where you might find friends chatting in different rooms, the app notifies users when their friends go into the app and shows who is talking to whom, with up to eight people permitted in any one group conversation.
Users can also enter friends’ conversations without their permission, unless they have specifically chosen to “lock” their room.
The 50-strong company has cast itself as a socially-responsible alternative to larger social media group Facebook, swearing never to monetise through user data and advertising.
This goal was made easier in June last year, when it was acquired by Epic Games, the maker of free “battle royale” game Fortnite, for an undisclosed amount. For now, its deeper-pocketed owner appears to be bankrolling the app: Houseparty announced earlier this month that its gaming add-ons, its main source of revenue, would be free.
Instead, analysts expect Epic to integrate the app more closely with Fortnite and Unreal Engine, the platform it has created for other game developers to build upon, as the online gaming industry increasingly incorporates communication features typically found on social media platforms.
“Epic is using its burgeoning M&A war chest to acquire services and tools that will help sustain Fortnite’s role as a social platform, and the Houseparty acquisition fits into that strategy,” said Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research at Ampere Analysis.
“Epic has already integrated part of Houseparty’s technology and feature set into the Fortnite experience, but the company probably sees value in scaling the standalone app to broaden its audience outside of the Fortnite experience,” he added.
One person familiar with the company said that Epic was in a strong position to scale the app amid the spike in interest. Still, Houseparty has struggled with some outages, and had to cull several extra features during the surge.
In the longer term, Houseparty, like the other video chat apps, will battle to prove that they are not a pandemic-induced fad but part of a lasting shift in how we communicate.
For now, though, it is offering light relief to millions. “Literally the world and his wife have signed up!” said Ms di Carcaci. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020