The video chat app that should scare the hell out of Facebook and Snapchat

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It’s rare that a small startup is able to challenge the likes of Facebook and Snapchat in a meaningful way.

But Houseparty, a teen-centric video chat app is managing to do just that. One year since launching publicly (the company spent several months in a stealthy beta), Houseparty has grown to 20 million users who together have participated in more than half a billion video calls (or “parties,” to use the app’s terminology).

Twenty million may sound like a drop in the bucket compared to Facebook’s billions or even Snapchat’s 166 million users. But the video chat app, created by the same team who founded the once-hyped live streaming app Meerkat, is beating its bigger rivals in one important way: engagement.

The app’s users, 60 percent of whom are under the age of 24, spend an average of 51 minutes a day in the app. To put that in perspective, Snapchat’s most engaged users spend 30 minutes a day in the app. Facebook says its users spend an average of 50 minutes per day, but that’s across Instagram, Facebook, and Messenger combined. 

Facebook has taken notice. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that the social network is working on a Houseparty clone called Bonfire as part of an aggressive bid to quash the competition. 

Whether Snapchat is also feeling the heat is less clear. But as we’ve previously noted, there are some rather striking similarities between Houseparty and Snapchat. Both have a very young and very engaged user base. Both apps eschew the typical trappings of a big social network, saying their service is meant more for “close friends,” not the whole world.

Both companies attribute this success to their ability to connect their users with their “real” friends so they can be their “authentic” selves.

“This feels like a new way for them to connect where they don’t have to be this polished, filtered version of themselves they put out for public consumption,” Houseparty cofounder Sima Sistani says of the app’s allure for younger users.

houseparty's new groups feature.

houseparty’s new groups feature.

Spend a few minutes on the app and it’s easy to see why it’s so appealing to teens. It’s filled with emoji and other “in” jokes that might not make sense to the olds. 

There’s a “ghosting” mode, which lets you sign in without notifying your friends, allowing you to stealthily choose who you want to talk to. You can “pass a note” to surreptitiously text message someone in your current video chat without letting the other participants know. The app also just added a groups feature so you can designate specific friends you chat with frequently.

That may sounds like a whirlwind of high-stakes teen social drama, but Sistani says the app is building off social dynamics that have been in place long before there were ever smartphones.

“Those social behaviors haven’t changed in half a century despite major changes in technology,” she says, noting that things like call-waiting, three-way calling, and voicemail all subtly changed how young people communicate.

Of course, even with the traction Houseparty has, battling the likes of Facebook and Snapchat won’t be easy, especially once one or both companies start copying core features. But Houseparty does have the advantage of a 20 million user-strong head start. Provided it can sustain the current engagement, it’s not going to be easy for the competition to ignore.



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