There have been reports, lately, of people suffering from something called “Zoom fatigue.” It’s a second pandemic we should have seen coming: the video-conferencing tool Zoom, for weeks the most downloaded app in the App Store, has caused widespread burnout.
What to do? One could try this spring’s second-most downloaded app and see if it’s any better. Houseparty, launched in 2016, allows users to convene in “rooms” of up to eight people and entertain themselves with virtual board games (including a Pictionary knockoff) and trivia quizzes. Before the pandemic, Houseparty was a Gen-Z hangout, a mid-tier player in the video-calling leagues. Then the app gained fifty million new users in one month. It’s the virtual living room to Zoom’s virtual office.
On a recent Sunday, a few newbies—an educator in the U.K., an obstetrician in New York City, a P.R. manager for an ovulation-tracking app in Berlin—gathered on Houseparty for a birthday celebration. The app was glitching. “I can’t really hear anyone,” the Berliner said, as he poured himself a glass of sparkling rosé. “Shall we switch to Zoom?”
Three hours later and six thousand miles to the west, Julia Onken was getting ready to do a group workout on Houseparty; she works in marketing for the app. At twenty-six, she was already a little old to be on the app—before the lockdown, she said, ninety per cent of users were under twenty-four, though older generations have since been catching on. As a millennial recently texted a friend, trying to arrange a meeting on Houseparty, “FaceTime is so pre-Covid.”
Onken, who lives in San Francisco, said, “I haven’t left my apartment, but I’m more social than I think I’ve ever been.” The night before, she’d had a first date with a guy who lives three blocks away. “We matched on Bumble, and he suggested FaceTime and wine,” she said. “I was, like, Houseparty and White Claw?”
Houseparty users are encouraged to imagine that they physically inhabit their digital space. Opening the app sends an alert that you are “in the house,” where you can “wave” at others, or, if you like, “ghost” them. As at an actual social event, it can be hard to avoid old acquaintances. Signing up sends a notification to every user who has your number: your boss, your therapist, your ex. Friends can wander into groups at will—or by accident—unless someone “locks the room.” Once inside, it can be hard to hear over the chatter. Despite the cheery prompts that the app provides—“Harry Potter is the same age as Kim Kardashian,” “You can’t hum while holding your nose”—conversation tends toward small talk. An activity helps.
Once Onken was ready, Aimee Jen, a thirty-year-old in black leggings and a baggy gray T-shirt, joined the room. “This is my first time on Houseparty,” she said, through a chirrup of feedback. “I feel so old and uncool.” She, too, was stuck at home, although her dog, a diabetic mutt named George, sometimes forced her out of the house.
At noon, the women opened Instagram and started a live Barry’s Bootcamp class. While Jen fiddled with her volume, Onken performed a series of squats. On Instagram, a muscle-bound instructor shouted into the camera: “Let’s go hard! Hold it! We’ve got eight seconds, then we’re going to lay on the floor, in five! In four! In three! Two! One!” Onken lay on her back with the soles of her feet in closeup. On the other side of the split screen, the dog sauntered into the shot and sat on Jen’s legs.
After catching her breath, Onken was on to her next Houseparty appointment, a pub quiz with college friends in London. “We’ve been hosting these quizzes every few days,” Georgina Coward, a fashion merchandiser, who was quarantining in Southwark, said. “You can get really upset and depressed, or you can just make the most of it.” Her co-host, Fiona Endersen, agreed. “We were finding that conversations went straight back to coronavirus,” she said. “But, with this, people feel like they’ve escaped for an hour.”
The room filled up, and Coward, holding a big inflatable microphone, started asking questions: Zayn Malik’s age (twenty-seven), the scent of a candle recently released by Gwyneth Paltrow (her own vagina). The contestants, lonely but not alone, slumped on sofas or lounged in bed, half-drunk wineglasses foregrounded in their rectangles of screen. For a sonic round, Coward and Endersen sang snatches from “The Sound of Music.” Onken was stumped. “I don’t know a single musical!” she said.
The first prize, a four-pack of toilet paper, went to Coward’s brother. Endersen told him he could pick it up when the lockdown ended—unless somebody else won it in the meantime. There’d be another quiz next week, she said. “For now, there’s nothing else to do but call people.” ?
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