All of a sudden, Houseparty is everywhere. The video-chatting app, which makes it easy for as many as eight people to share a virtual hang, has been around since 2016, but for obvious reasons, it has surged in popularity this month: Today, Houseparty is the iOS Store’s fifth most downloaded free app in the United States. (It has already hit #1 in the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain.) If you don’t have it already, chances are good that someone you know will invite you to join it soon.
So what’s the appeal of Houseparty, and what are the potential downsides? As its name suggests, the app is basically a virtual version of a massive get-together. If your friends are “in the house,” you can chat them up one on one—or you can gather a group in a room to talk or play games, either locking that room’s door or leaving it open for new people to walk in and join you. Here is what you need to know.
1. Instant video chat with friends
The benefit: Houseparty draws on your personal contact lists (from your phone as well as from Facebook and Snapchat) to help you create a network of friends on the app. The app then tells you who is using it and who has used it recently. If one of your friends is on at the same time as you, hit the “join” button next to their name to be connected to them right away.
The drawback: Because friends can start conversations without any notice, make sure you’re ready to be seen when you’re using the app: You could be zapped into a conversation at any time. If you have a lot of contacts, you may want to be selective about which ones you put on your friend list; you could limit it, for example, to people you really wouldn’t mind seeing anytime. (Also, allowing any app to access your contacts raises privacy concerns—but Forbes’s cybersecurity reporter finds no major red flags, and offers some tips on how to minimize your risk.)
2. Spontaneous group hangouts
The benefit: Houseparty allows groups of up to eight people to chat at once. But compared with other apps like Zoom, it has a casual, spur-of-the-moment vibe. You don’t need to plan anything in advance or send anyone an invitation; you can instantly join any open group that contains at least one person you're friends with. That makes it a good way to expand your social circle, like going to a real-life party with one friend you know.
The drawback: You may not want people you don’t know butting into your chat time with friends. To control that, you can use the lock button at the bottom of the screen to close the group off. And if your kids are using the app—or if you’re a kid yourself—be mindful of the stranger danger that can come with meeting a bunch of new folks online.
3. Notifications when friends are on
The benefit: If a friend you want to talk to isn’t using the app at the moment, you can hit the hand-wave icon next to their name to let them know you’re around; they’ll get a notification on their phone and have the option to join you or not. The app also sends you notifications by itself to let you know when contacts of yours have joined the app or when friends of yours are using it.
The drawback: If you have a lot of friends and/or contacts, you’ll be getting a lot of notifications about them. To manage this, hit the smiley-face icon on the upper left of the main screen. That will give you the option to turn off notifications completely or to mute them for individual friends. And if you’re not necessarily in the mood to chat but just want to see who’s around, you can use the app without anyone knowing by pressing the app’s icon on your phone a little longer than usual and hitting the “Sneak Into the House” option.
4. Games with friends
The benefit: One of the features that users enjoy most on the app is the availability of simple games to play during chat sessions (check out our list of the five best Houseparty apps if you’re looking for inspiration). When you click on the dice on the upper right if your screen, you there are four options: a trivia challenge and games that are essentially versions of Pictionary, Heads Up! and Apples to Apples. (The Pictionary one is the most fun.) If you’re looking to pass a little time with your buddies, these can be a major plus.
The drawback: The games themselves are not as well developed as they could be; after a few rounds, you’ll be getting an annoyingly large number of repeat questions and clues. Given the app’s new popularity, we hope that its developers will expand on this aspect of the experience soon, since it is one of the app’s major draws. (In the Heads Up! game, at least, you can add fresh categories for 99 cents a pop.)
5. Easy recording
The benefit: If someone you want to chat with doesn’t happen to be around, Houseparty makes it simple to record and send them a brief video message—and get a notification when they read it. Also, the app makes it easy to record your chat sessions by hitting the ellipsis on the bottom left of the screen.
The drawback: Houseparty doesn’t tell you if someone else is recording your conversation, so be careful if you’re chatting with someone you don’t trust—which is good advice under any circumstances, really.
To take full advantage of Houseparty, you’ll need to use a phone or tablet. A desktop version exists, but it lacks most of the features that make the app worthwhile.