What began as a voluntary reduction of physical contact with other people has, in recent days, become an order for around a fifth of the planet as lockdown leaves video calling the only hope for social interaction – riding this wave is a fast-growing app called Houseparty.

While Zoom is emerging as a crossover success from people’s working lives to their personal relationships, the Epic-games-owned video chat app Houseparty has been exploding in popularity as the social reality of the COVID-19 crisis radically changes people’s lives.

If Zoom (like Skype or Google hangouts) functions on the basis of meetings, working well for pre-organised meet-ups, or meetings, Houseparty is more like a digital common room or schoolyard. It’s socialising when you have a free couple of minutes, rather than a scheduled event.

Users receive notifications when their friends enter the app; they can then see which conversations are currently active and can choose to join them (it is possible to lock the conversation). Each “room” can hold up to eight participants.

Over the last week, according to App Annie, Houseparty saw two million new downloads worldwide, and hurtling up the App Store charts to become the number one app in Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom – all three of which are now under strict national restrictions on movement intended to stem the spread of the novel Coronavirus. In the US, meanwhile, its March downloads have been 323 times higher than its February downloads, per Sensor Tower.

Spontaneity has been key to the app’s popularity among teenagers, but it’s the large amount of free time at home among older audiences that has nudged them into downloading a relatively young app. As TechCrunch’s Josh Constine puts it, in Houseparty we see how social media actually becomes social rather than a site for bragging. “There’s no more FOMO because there’s nothing to miss.”

Beginning in 2016, as Meerkat, its founders framed the core of its offer as “spontaneous togetherness” through in-app games or screen sharing that allows people to see other apps together. Its big boost came in June 2019 when the company was bought by the Fortnite-maker Epic Games for an undisclosed sum.

Its wealthy parent appears to be the financial force behind the app, which is currently funding a growth stage, offering its gaming services – until recently, the money-maker – for free. Already, some of its functions and technology are being integrated with Fortnite and Unreal Engine (Epic’s gaming platform) to make the company’s other offerings more social.

What’s really interesting about the app, though, is its professed rejection of what has made its much larger rivals, typified by Facebook, so powerful. In a WSJ interview in February 2019, the founders talk about how they were looking to be less like the ad-supported social networks and more like Fortnite (suggesting talks were very much under way).

The question will be whether Houseparty can build the kind of sustainable popularity that makes it a destination for brands to explore integrations rather than outright advertising. Like Fortnite, where brands like the NFL gained a foothold through skins that users could buy, the real asset is that extended engagement from an audience that is abandoning Facebook.

Whether this boom lasts past lockdown, meanwhile, depends on how well it fulfils its own promise to help users being together. 

Sourced from NYT, App Annie, TechCrunch, The Verge, WSJ, Epic Games; additional content by WARC staff