Almost every day when they get home from school, Gracie, age 16, and Sarah, age 14, open the app Houseparty, where they can video chat with to up to seven of their friends at once. The sisters, who live in Danville, Calif., use it to socialize and collaborate on homework, for 15 minutes to an hour. When they first open it they may be chatting with just one friend, but everyone they’re connected to on Houseparty gets a push alert that they’re “in the house,” and, soon enough, the room fills up. It might even spill over into other rooms, growing organically, just like a real house party.
Teens have been hanging out online for 20 years, but in 2017 they’re doing it on group video chat apps, in a way that feels like the real thing, not just a poor substitute. Ranging in age from adolescents to their early 20s—the group loosely defined as “Generation Z”—these young people are leaving the apps open, in order to hang out casually with peers in a trend some call “live chilling.”
This phenomenon is made possible by the sudden ubiquity of video chat, in messaging apps such as Kik and Facebook Messenger, as well as stand-alone apps including Houseparty, Fam, Tribe, Airtime and ooVoo.
Houseparty, which launched in February 2016, says it reached one million daily active users within seven months. Fam, launched in December 2016, reached a million downloads within 12 days, says co-founder and chief executive Giuseppe Stuto.
These apps make sense now in part because more teens than ever have access to smartphones. In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported 73% of U.S. teens have access to a smartphone, and that figure is growing. Those teens are checking their phones on average more than 80 times a day, according to Deloitte.
It isn’t just that teens have phones, and that the infrastructure required to handle multiple simultaneous video streams is more accessible to developers than ever. It is also that teens aren’t getting out to socialize in real life like they once did. One in three teens told Pew that they hang out with friends outside of school less often than “every few days.”
“To me that’s where this story begins,” says Ted Livingston, founder and chief executive of Kik, a messaging app with 300 million registered users that is especially popular with American teenagers. It is hard for older generations to understand how young people cope with this lack of physical hangtime, he says. “The answer is they’re hanging out with their friends on their phone.”
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SOURCE: CHRISTOPHER MIMS
Wall Street Journal