As many businesses suspended activities and governments in every nook and cranny of the world began to announce lockdowns to manage the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Houseparty, a video-conferencing app began to take on a life of its own. With higher education disruptions in larger magnitude than any event since World War II, 2020 will be remembered for how COVID-19 destabilized the world. The institution of lockdowns to manage the curve by reducing contact left millennials across the world forcefully restricted and unable to go about their regular routines, Houseparty helped plug a gap. The app succeeded in shrinking the world by connecting millennials and allowing them to embark on conference calls with their friends and also make new friends through calls or “rooms” as the app refers to them.
Taking the stores by storm
Originally launching in 2016 and initially gaining popularity amongst Gen Zers in the first quarter of 2017, Houseparty boasts that it had over one million daily users with 60% of its user base below 24, three months after launching. The app requires users to add their friends and operates as a house, which issues notifications that you are now in the app and willing to talk to all your friends, upon opening. If someone else is already in the house, you can enter a room with them which starts a video chat. Any friends who saw the notification and comes into the app can also join you in the room regardless of whether they are friends with the other people you’re in the room with. All the friends of users on the call can also do the same unless the lock room feature which hides the identity of those you’re in the room with and prevents any newcomers from entering the room is enabled. There is also a feature to sneak into the house and ghost which allows the user to become anonymous.
The basis of Houseparty was rooted in the fact that it not only provided a service other players in the industry had failed to deliver, but also that it was interested in reimagining how its users connected with those they had an interest in interacting with. One feature that amplified this thought process is the fact that the app excludes information about the number of people friends users have. It is a decision Houseparty made years ago that we have seen other social networks lean towards recently, Instagram for instance, piloting a feature that hides the number of likes on posts since late 2019. For Houseparty’s young crop of users, the appeal was initially in how it actually made people interact but furthermore, in the fact that it allowed for connections to be made through mutual friends in more meaningful ways than other social media apps that are not hinged on actual communication. For example, when two friends are in a room and a third person, a mutual friend of one of the initial pair comes in, there is a need to communicate. Common courtesy demands it and that call gives a chance for the two people who did not know each other before to make a new connection they can build on. On other social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, a user can be on the app simply scrolling through content and the most connection they have with other users is a like or a retweet or repost. Those forms of communication, if we are allowed to call it that, are not as intriguing as potentially meeting someone new from a conversation about a random topic. These other platforms do not necessitate active communication in the manner Houseparty does and factors like this helped Houseparty become the mainstay it has, particularly during the lockdowns that have resulted in response to COVID-19. The need for more interaction to compensate for being stuck at home cannot be overstated and played a role in Houseparty’s growth since mid-March.
According to Eseosa Idemudia and Tife Idowu, a pair of students I spoke to for this story at University College London and the University of Loughborough respectively, after schools dismissed its students, Houseparty became an easy way to keep in contact with friend groups who had been forced to retreat to homes across the world. They also shared that they had spent a lot of their time on apps like Google Classroom and Zoom as well but more in their capacity as students and instead leaned towards Houseparty for social interactions because they had never created the association of the app being for work in the time they had used it.
Houseparty’s intriguing gaming/trivia capability also fostered a sense of competition and tacked on another layer of communication for its users. At a time when most interactions are internet-based, Houseparty succeeded at helping people meet in more social settings than applications like Zoom and Google Hangout which are often associated with more professional settings. The direct relationship between Houseparty’s rise and the COVID-19 pandemic’s growth can be seen in the fact that in Italy and Spain, the week ending March 21st saw 423 and 2360 more times the average weekly number of downloads than in the fourth quarter of 2019. The week ending March 21st marks a one to two-week span from the institution of public lockdowns in both countries. Other apps like Google Hangouts and Zoom also saw sizeable increases in their consumers in the period in countries like the U.K., U.S., Spain and Italy, however, Houseparty’s numbers are probably the most impressive when we consider the fact that the age demographic of its users is far more limited than the likes of Zoom and Google Hangouts. Since the end of that week, Houseparty has remained in the top sixty downloaded apps in the countries in question according to data sourced from Sensor Tower. This is remarkable because as we can see from the graph below, at the start of March, Houseparty was a fringe member of the Top 500 club in most of the countries shown and in the first 10 days of March, we see it drop out of the top 500 most downloaded apps in each of those countries at least once.
According to TechCrunch, in a country like Spain, Houseparty downloads rose by 2360 times during COVID-19. In contrast, in the US the rise was only about 8 times when compared to the fourth quarter of 2019. While the exact numbers are not publicly available online, it can be deduced that the numbers in Spain and Italy, which stood at 423 times and 2360 times respectively, are so high because of extremely low bases. It is possible that as a result of many students in the U.S. and U.K. heading back home, they have introduced many more friends at home to the app and so led to its large growth in those countries. The already large following and subscriber base of Housparty in the U.K. and U.S. makes it so much harder for the app’s growth to look impressive in these countries. When we look however at Houseparty peaking at #1 in all of these countries under free apps in the Apple App Store, we can confirm just how much of a success the app has been in this period without the bias of initial starting points coming into question.