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IN HIGH SPIRITS

Will Houseparty’s Indian party last beyond the Covid-19 lockdown?

Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Stuck indoors in the coronavirus lockdown, India hasn’t stopped partying.

Houseparty, a video-chatting app, owned and operated by American billion-dollar gaming powerhouse Epic Games, has become all the rage in India since the government implemented a 21-day lockdown on March 24. The app’s users in the country are not limited to savvy youngsters.

Launched in 2016, Houseparty alerts a user when their friends are “in the house” and ready to chat so they can strike up a conversation or play games and quizzes with up to eight people in a virtual room. The app was briefly popular among teens but was no match to other video-based social networking platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Until February this year, it was not even among the top 100 social networking apps among iPhone users in India.

However, by the first week of April, it was the chart-topper, analytics site SensorTower show.

“The application has existed for several years now, but its popularity and user base were limited due to the availability of alternatives such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and individual social gaming apps,” Kiran Kumar, technology research manager at Frost & Sullivan, told Quartz. “What led to the sudden surge in popularity of Houseparty was the application’s seamless integration of video chats with multiple gaming options, which meant high engagement and more time spent on the app.”

The Indian trend is in-line with what’s happening elsewhere. Across the world, Houseparty saw over 651,000 downloads on March 25, a manifold increase from under 25,000 on Feb. 15, according to Sukriti Seth, an analyst at Noida-based TechSci Research.

What’s stunning is that its newfound popularity has come without any additional marketing efforts and just via word-of-mouth.

“The greatest increase in engagement is with a previously unknown app called HouseParty but a look at their numbers also tell us how erratic the usage has been,” said a release by Delhi-based market intelligence firm Kalagato.

 

“Houseparty is indeed a killer app with (a) potential to be a super app, particularly in times of lockdown,” said Vidhyashankar, head of corporate development at Chennai-based IT services company Ninestars Technologies. “It’s also inherently made for virality as one can connect with so many unknown people perhaps through a single degree of separation. I’m not sure if the panic around the data privacy and security features affect its usage trends…but for now, there seems to be no other rival.”

Party-poopers

Ayushi Chamaria, a Kolkata resident, first used the app in 2015 when she was still in college and everyone around was talking about Houseparty. But she soon lost interest and uninstalled the app. Now, amid the lockdown, she’s bought back into the hype. “I have been using it every day since the lockdown began. I spend about two hours on it each day,” said Chamaria.

“I don’t think it’ll sustain after the quarantine is over because of how intrusive it is.”

However, Chamaria is nervous about “unlocked” rooms on Houseparty where everyone can see the participants in a group chat when the rooms are not closed. “I have to be very cautious when I’m online on the app because anyone can ‘join’ you without warning,” said the 25-year-old finance professional. “I don’t think it will sustain after the quarantine because of how intrusive it is.”

Of late, hacking rumours, too, have hurt.

“Houseparty is a scam! My Spotify account got hacked because of it,” said 26-year-old Mumbai resident Aakarsh Gulati, adding that he knows three others who have had their Amazon Prime accounts hacked since downloading the app.

In the first week of April, several users left reviews on the app store saying it exposed not only Spotify and Amazon Prime accounts, but also Snapchat, Tinder, Paytm, and online banking, as per data collated by SensorTower, a market intelligence company.

A handful even complained that the app wasn’t letting them delete their accounts.

Neither Gulati nor any of the other reviewers have offered evidence that Houseparty had led to security breaches. The makers of Houseparty, meanwhile, have claimed that they are the target of a smear campaign and offered $1 million to anyone who proves the allegations.

However, the apprehensions remain. Marketing professional Avantika Ahuja, 25, deleted the app after these rumours surfaced, though she herself didn’t face any threat. Sachika Balvani, a professional squash player who had downloaded the app during the lockdown, did the same.

The fun could go on

The app, though, is headed in the right direction thanks to its casual and easy interface, according to over half-a-dozen users that Quartz spoke to.

Yet, a post-coronavirus world will call for more innovation.

“The usage will certainly plummet since people will not be spending a lot of time chatting virtually as opposed to the current situation,” said Karnika Majeji, a 26-year-old from Kolkata. “If the app modifies its features, adds cool games, and activities that other apps don’t provide, it could be a great platform for long-distance interactions.”

Bolstering security, too, could help, Kumar of Frost & Sullivan said.

“If they resolve those issues, I think I would get it again. It was really nice to see friends I haven’t seen in so long,” said Balvani, the squash player.

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