These new social apps sure do love to run roughshod over existing pop culture. Before TikTok tik-took over the world, we spoke up on behalf of Kesha fans everywhere. And now that Houseparty is ascendant, it falls on us to point out that perhaps the founders of the “face-to-face social network” could have paid more respect to the 1990 Kid ’n Play comedy House Party before they forever poisoned the phrase’s Google search results. But since that damage has pretty well been done, we might as well move on to what you’ve probably come here for: an introduction to Houseparty, an app you may have been hearing about more since quarantine took hold, and a ruling on whether you should be using it.
To begin: What is Houseparty?
It’s an app for video chatting with friends that allows up to eight people to chat at once. It’s mobile-first, but available on desktop too. I know what you’re thinking: You already have at least three of those. Why would you need another one? We’ll get to that. But first, some history: Houseparty was founded in 2016 by a company called Life on Air Inc. and grew out of the dregs of an earlier app, Meerkat.* It proved popular enough over the next few years that Facebook tried to buy it in 2018, but when that didn’t work out (Facebook knew that antitrust investigators were watching and had launched a copycat, Bonfire, which has since shut down), another company swooped in to buy it last year: Epic Games, the maker of the popular video game Fortnite.
How is Houseparty different from the rest of the video chat tools out there?
You can do group calls from other apps, but Houseparty’s raison d’être is the group hangout call. Think about it: FaceTime pretty clearly was meant for one-on-one calls (with other iPhone users, not Android users like me—harrumph!), while Zoom and Google Hangouts scream desktop (not to mention “work call”). Houseparty fits neatly into the gap those three bigger, more well-known services left. Even though it sounds a little silly—they really all do the same thing!—it kind of works in practice. A Houseparty does feel more fun and casual than a Zoom. “Sometimes I say, Zoom by day, Houseparty by night,” the app’s CEO, Sima Sistani, recently told CNBC.
Are you sure Houseparty has existed for four years? Why am I just now hearing about it?
Yup, the app has definitely been around since 2016, but if you haven’t heard of it, you’re probably not a teen or twentysomething. Houseparty followed the hot social media playbook of forebears like Facebook and Snapchat in that it won over the kids before coming for the adults. This trajectory has been expedited considerably by the coronavirus crisis: Houseparty has seen a surge of new users since mid-March and is now charting among the most downloaded apps around the world. You may have found yourself thinking, as I did one night last week, I’m trapped at home and want to talk to friends and family, and I’ve already done Zoom and the other apps, so let’s see what this Houseparty thing is about. That thought process has played out about 50 million times in recent weeks, which is 70 times the normal rate in some markets, as TechCrunch noted.
How does it work?
Another way that Houseparty is different from the other video chat apps is that you don’t really call or invite people to a call that’s been scheduled in advance. Instead, it’s based on the idea that you might sign on and see which of your friends might already be on, then join them in a chat room, kind of like some millennials may remember doing in the days of AOL Instant Messenger. (You can essentially just call people using Houseparty, by sending them a notification—or a wave, which sounds like Houseparty’s version of a Facebook poke—that you’re on and want to chat, but you know young people: Calling us at any time, ever, is wildly inappropriate, but we will respond instantly to any and all notifications.)
So the app is part video chat app, part social network: When you sign up, you’ll be prompted to add people from your phone contacts and other social media networks as friends. If your experience is anything like mine and my friends’, this will call up a lot of names you don’t recognize at all, as well as names you do recognize but might not feel like you’re on a video chat basis with. The bar for friends here might be higher than it is for Instagram or Twitter. Sure, you’ll follow someone’s updates in your own time, but whom are you close enough with to show your actual face at any given moment? That’s how I think of it, anyway; some people are loving meeting strangers on the app. Either way, you’d better add a few people when you first sign up because Houseparty, annoyingly, doesn’t work without friends on the app—if you have no friends in the app, when you sign on, there will be no one there to chat with.
When you have a friend or a few ready to use Houseparty with you, one of you can create a party for the rest of you to join. You can either lock that room so no one else can join (though they can ask, and you can either let them in or ignore them), or you can leave it unlocked, in which case anyone any of you are friends with, if they happen to also be online, might see that you’re having a party and join (or, in Houseparty parlance, “crash”). The Wall Street Journal said this feature has lately resulted in parents crashing their kids’ chats with friends, and elsewhere, people swear that it’s part of the fun to pop in on a group where you only know one person and no one else. You can also send out notifications for other people to join at any given time, and switch between multiple groups if you have more than one Houseparty to attend. You can futz with the settings to make it so only the people you want, which may be no one, can see when you’re online (Houseparty calls this “ghosting”), but you can still show up at parties as you wish.
You can also send private messages to friends individually (this is called “passing a note” on Houseparty) if you want to have a side conversation, though you obviously have a million other ways to do that.
If you’re old, will you be able to use it?
Houseparty is similar to Snapchat in that it relies on so-called gestural navigation, as opposed to the tapping and clicking that older people are more accustomed to. I can attest that using it for the first time did feel a little disorienting for me, as a non–Gen Zer. Plus, one of its features, Facemail, sounds suspiciously like 30 Rock’s parody of a social network, YouFace. (Facemail just means recording a video message for someone to open later, rather than having a live chat with them.) But after some fumbling, I more or less figured it out, so there’s no reason you can’t. Just swipe around a bunch and try to angle the phone so it doesn’t give you more chins than you would like to have, and you’ll be fine.
There are also games on this thing?
The games Houseparty offers for free include Heads Up! (where your friends give you clues to prompt you to guess the answer), Trivia, Chips and Guac (an Apples to Apples/Cards Against Humanity knockoff), and Quick Draw! (a Pictionary sort of thing). You can pull them up by hitting the dice icon in the app. The games are nicely integrated with the video chatting, meaning you’re still on camera with all your friends in the background while you’re playing. However, the games are also a tad confusing, so it may take a few tries to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing and where to tap.
I found Quick Draw! to be the best. All the rest varied but depended heavily on the card or subject you drew, and the references were, despite the influx of new users, still squarely aimed at Gen Z, or whoever it is that is most knowledgeable about the relationship between Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello. Chips and Guac, befitting its weird copycat name, was my least favorite—the answers rarely ended up being funny like they are in the games it rips off, and it’s hard to mimic the feeling of looking through your cards and choosing one to put down on a screen. The cards also offered clumsy definitions that sapped some of the interpretive fun of the game.
Each game is super short, which makes a certain amount of sense given what we’re always hearing about people’s attention spans today, but quick games don’t really lend themselves to the extended hangout sessions many of us are looking for right now. It’s also not a given that the games wouldn’t get old after they provide an initial hum of distraction to get over video chatting’s ever-present awkwardness hump, but additional decks and trivia topics and whatnot are available through in-app purchases.
What is using Houseparty actually like, though, and will people keep using it after all this?
It’s … fine! It’s kinda cool, honestly. Your video might lag or freeze a little, but overall it seemed pretty smooth. Using it, there’s still a novelty factor for those of us who haven’t done much video chatting with our phones. That said, I’m not sure that will be enough to keep most new users coming back. The network effect explains this: For Houseparty to work best, you’d want to have a lot of friends on it, so that any given time you sign on there might be someone to chat with. If all your friends were on it, you’d probably want to be on it too. I have exactly four friends on it, and none of them is online now. I couldn’t throw a Houseparty if I wanted to. Until that tipping point where everyone is actually on it, will people stick with it?
As much as it looks like most everyone has embraced Zoom, people who didn’t grow up with video chat may retain some amount of resistance to it. I think that’s where I stand. Things are changing, especially now, but video chatting still feels unnatural to many of us. One of the friends I Houseparty-ed with made the astute observation that back when we were all tweens and teenagers on AIM, instant messaging your crush was scary enough; initiating an impromptu video chat with your crush sounds terrifying. Do you do that, kids? Especially for those of us who are self-conscious about how we look on video chat (which is literally everyone). Staring at your awkward, oblong face in Houseparty’s front-facing camera can be more than a little “yikes”-inducing. It kind of makes Zoom look like a softly lit photo shoot in comparison.
Correction, April 22, 2020: This post originally misspelled Meerkat.