The company that turned live-streaming into a sensation last year is ready to introduce its next act. Meerkat, which sparked new interest in mobile broadcasting before sputtering amid competition from Facebook and Twitter, has returned with Houseparty. It’s an app for video chatting with friends that the company is calling a "synchronous social network" — a place to be together even when you’re apart.
Built under a pseudonym for 10 months, the app for Android and iOS has been gaining traction among young people around the country — and it’s closing in on 1 million users. Its creators say it encourages users to have frequent, candid conversations with their friends and family. The question Houseparty will face now that the company is ready to talk about it is that same one that dogged Meerkat: can it last?
Last spring, when his company’s live-streaming app Meerkat became an overnight sensation, Ben Rubin explained its popularity with two words: "spontaneous togetherness." Starting a broadcast with a couple of taps from a mobile phone, reaching a huge audience of friends and interested strangers, proved irresistible when Meerkat had its breakout moment at South by Southwest. The company quickly raised $12 million in new funding from investors who thought it could be the next major social platform.
Then the idea of spontaneous togetherness seemed to spontaneously combust. Twitter blocked Meerkat’s access to its social graph and released a significantly more polished live-streaming app of its own, Periscope, within weeks. Facebook built live streaming into its flagship mobile app, which has more than 1 billion monthly users, a few months later. Suddenly Meerkat was in a three-way fight against two companies with significantly more resources at their disposal.
But from Rubin’s perspective, Meerkat faced an even bigger problem: most people simply don’t want to broadcast themselves regularly. Meerkat users might launch a broadcast a handful of times, but the distance between each broadcast grew larger every time: a week between broadcast six and seven, a month between seven and eight.
"We don’t see the category of live media breaking out as we envisioned it last summer," Rubin told me last week at the company’s offices in San Francisco. "Everybody felt like this is going to be the next big thing. And we did scratch the surface. But what we ended up with is that live is a great feature on top of an existing network. It’s not quite yet in a place where it can justify a whole new medium and a whole new set of behaviors where everyone is doing it on a daily basis."
In August the company — whose actual name is Life on Air — went back to the drawing board. It wasn’t the first time — the company had previously built Yevvo, an earlier take on broadcasting that focused on locations; and Air, an app for live streaming between friends. After Yevvo became a ghost town, the team hacked together Meerkat in eight weeks. Its success gave them another chance — but now the ground was falling out from underneath them again.
Group video chat for up to eight friends
At a retreat, Rubin and his newly hired chief operating officer, Sima Sistani, asked their team which parts of Meerkat they actually enjoyed using. The majority said broadcasts were the most fun when a close friend or family member joined the broadcast to talk with them. Rubin wondered whether that might serve as the basis for Meerkat’s next act.
As they had before, the company hacked together a working prototype. Open the app and it would immediately begin to broadcast using the front-facing camera, while notifying your friends that you were live — or as the company now says, "in the house." Up to seven other friends could join you with a tap, appearing on your phone’s screen in video windows of their own. They called the app Houseparty — a name designed to suggest good times while courting a hip, young demographic.
Even among supporters, some worried whether they were giving up on what Meerkat calls "one to many" broadcasting too soon. "I was a little bit skeptical," said Josh Elman, a partner at Greylock Ventures and member of the Meerkat board. He thought Meerkat might still have room to grow, and worried a private broadcasting app might find it difficult to acquire users. But the team loved using their creation, and Elman supported the effort.
The only problem: Meerkat didn’t want to associate its name with the new product. The company had just raised millions of dollars in support of public live streaming, after all, and a pivot to private sharing was likely to generate noisy criticism. It would also put enormous pressure on the company’s next product to be an outsized success.
And so the former Meerkat staged a hoax. It launched Houseparty on Android and iOS with no fanfare, listing the developer as "Alexander Herzick" — which happens to be the name of Sistani’s husband. They chose him as their front man because of his almost nonexistent social media profile. (Later, after Houseparty rose to No. 2 in the App Store’s top downloads chart, the company built fake Facebook and LinkedIn pages for Herzick to support the illusion. When venture capitalists would email "him" asking to meet, the company responded by sending them Daft Punk GIFs.)
Soon the company dispatched employees to college campuses in Alabama, Ohio, and Arkansas. They met with fraternities, sororities, and other student groups to show them how the app worked. Students began using the app to make Friday night plans, to reminisce the morning after, and to do homework together during the week.
Students use it to do make plans and do homework
For the company, the best news was that users weren’t abandoning the app after five or six broadcasts. Instead they returned several times a week — and invited their friends. Houseparty spread to all 50 states and then other countries.
Then the company almost lost it all — again.
By May, Houseparty was growing so fast that the team of about 20 people couldn’t keep up. Users would open the app and find that it wouldn’t connect, or the call would drop. "Everyone was like, ‘it’s a good problem to have,’" Sistani said. "In the moment it doesn’t feel like a good problem to have." App store reviews went from effusively positive to strongly negative. The number of new users slowed to a crawl.
The next month, the app’s connection to Meerkat was revealed by Recode. It also laid off about five people, according to Recode. But Houseparty hired Kyle Maxwell, a former senior engineer at Twitter, to help address its scaling problems. User growth started to pick up again once the school year started, and the team is beginning to dream big again.
The idea, Rubin says, is to create a live, always-on place that you can dip in and out of whenever you want. In his mind, it’s the best part of live streaming, minus the social anxieties that come from calling someone or initiating a FaceTime call. "No one ends their day by calling five friends," says Sistani, who was formerly the head of media partnerships at Tumblr.
But if you could talk to five friends simultaneously, even while you were apart, you just might. "We have a ton of spaces, mobile networks, where we share and we engage and we interact in an asynchronous way," Elman told me over the phone. "But we don’t have many spaces that we go together at the same time to chill, to hang out, to interact, to be live. Look at us having this live phone call — this is a very different interaction than you sharing a photo and me liking it. Those are all really powerful, too. But I still think this idea of these actual spaces is really important."
Houseparty has some goofy touches that will endear it to a younger crowd. A friend of a friend can enter your chat, and when they do, a banner warning "Stranger danger!" flashes on your screen. You can "wave" at other users to send them a push notification inviting them to join you — like a FaceTime call, sure, but a bit less thirsty. And you can lock your room for privacy. So far it’s all free, and there are no ads to be found anywhere.
"We're making a bet that live video is as real as it gets."
If you’re older than 25, Houseparty might not be for you. An app that requires me to shoot video of myself is not something I’m going to do much of during the work week. If I were 14, though, I can easily imagine myself opening it up after class to talk about homework and the day’s gossip with my friends.
A social network for Generation Z might look something like this, Sistani says. She linked the popularity of Snapchat among young people with the informal, authentic forms of sharing that it encourages. You might even call it ... spontaneous togetherness. "Everything in this new generation is trying to come back to what feels real," she says. "So we’re making a bet that live video is as real as it gets."