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This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.
Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This week, we’re looking into how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.
Top Stories
Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Judge denies Parler’s bid to make Amazon restore service

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.
Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.
The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.
The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.
TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.
This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.
Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.
On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.
Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.
Weekly News
Platforms: Apple

Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.

A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.

New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.

Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.

Goama lets developers integrate a social gaming platform into their apps

Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.

Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Pinterest launches an AR-powered try-on experience for eyeshadow

Entertainment

The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.

Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.

YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.

YouTube launches hashtag landing pages to all users

Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

WeChat advances e-commerce goals with $250B in transactions

Fintech

Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.

Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.

Monzo founder Tom Blomfield is departing the challenger bank and says he’s ‘struggled’ during the pandemic

New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 

Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.

Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.

Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.

TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

TikTok’s new Q&A feature lets creators respond to fan questions using text or video

Health & Fitness

Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.

WhatsApp-Facebook data-sharing transparency under review by EU DPAs after Ireland sends draft decision

German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.

Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.

Wattpad, the storytelling platform, is selling to South Korea’s Naver for $600 million

On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”

Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)

Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.

Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.

London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.

Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio

Downloads
Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.

Bodyguard is a mobile app that hides toxic content on social platforms

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.

Pebble founder launches Beeper, a universal chat app that works with iMessage and others

 

This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

Google pilots a search feature that aggregates short-form videos from TikTok and Instagram

Google is testing a new feature that will surface Instagram and TikTok videos in their own dedicated carousel in the Google app for mobile devices — a move that could help the company retain users in search of social video entertainment from fully leaving Google’s platform. The feature itself expands on a test launched earlier this year, where Google had first introduced a carousel of “Short Videos” within Google Discover  — the personalized feed found in the Google mobile app and to the left of the home screen on some Android devices.
To be clear, this “Short Videos” carousel is different from Google’s Stories, which rolled out in October 2020 to the Google Search app for iOS and Android. Those “Stories” — previously known as “AMP Stories” — consist of short-form video content created by Google’s online publishing partners like Forbes, USA Today, Vice, Now This, Bustle, Thrillist and others.
Meanwhile, the “Short Videos” carousel had been focused on aggregating social video from other platforms, including Google’s own short-form video project Tangi, Indian TikTok competitor Trell, as well as Google’s own video platform, YouTube — which has also been experimenting with short-form content as of late.

The expansion to include Instagram and TikTok content in this carousel was first reported by Search Engine Roundtable (via Brian Freiesleben’s tweet). They were able to access the feature by searching for “packers” in the Google app then scrolling down the page.
We were able to replicate this, as well. (See below image.)

Image Credits: screenshot of Google search results

We found the Short Videos carousel appears when you scroll past the Google Knowledge Base box for the Green Bay Packers, followed by the the scores, Top Stories, Twitter results, Top Results, Images, Videos and other content, like a listing of the players, standings and more.
Both Instagram and TikTok videos were available in the Short Videos row. When clicked, you’re taken to the web version of the social platform — not the native mobile app, even if it’s installed on your device. The end result is that Google users are more likely to remain on Google, as all it takes is a tap on the back arrow to return to the search results after watching the video.
Google has been indexing video content for years and partnered with Twitter on 2015 to index search results. It’s not clear to what extent it has any formal relationship with Facebook/Instagram or TikTok, however. (If those companies comment, we’ll update.)
Google declined to formally comment or further detail its plans, but a company spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch the feature was currently being piloted on mobile devices. They clarified that means it’s a limited, early-stage feature. In other words, you won’t find the video carousel on every search query just yet. But over time, as Google scales the product, it could become an interesting tool for indexing and surfacing top video content from social media — unless, of course, the platforms choose to block Google from doing so.
The feature is currently available in a limited way on the Google app for mobile devices and on the mobile web, the company said.

Google pilots a search feature that aggregates short-form videos from TikTok and Instagram

TikTok tops 2 billion downloads

TikTok, the widely popular video sharing app developed by one of the world’s most valued startups (ByteDance), continues to grow rapidly despite suspicion from the U.S. as more people look for ways to keep themselves entertained amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The global app and its Chinese version, called Douyin, have amassed over 2 billion downloads on Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store, mobile insight firm Sensor Tower said Wednesday.
TikTok is the first app after Facebook’s marquee app, WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger to break past the 2 billion downloads figure since January 1 of 2014, a Sensor Tower official told TechCrunch. (Sensor Tower began its app analysis on that date.)
A number of apps from Google, the developer of Android, including Gmail and YouTube, have amassed over 5 billion downloads, but they ship pre-installed on most Android smartphones and tables.
TikTok’s 2 billion download milestone, a key metric to assess an app’s growth, comes five months after it surpassed 1.5 billion downloads.

In the quarter that ended on March 31, TikTok was downloaded 315 million times — the highest number of downloads for any app in a quarter and — surpassing its previous best of 205.7 million downloads in Q4 2018. Facebook’s WhatsApp, the second most popular app by volume of downloads, amassed nearly 250 million downloads in Q1 this year, Sensor Tower told TechCrunch.
As the app gains popularity, it is also clocking more revenue. Users have spent about $456.7 million on TikTok to date, up from $175 million five months ago. Much of this spending — about 72.3% — has happened in China. Users in the United States have spent about $86.5 million on the app, making the nation the second most important market for TikTok from the revenue standpoint.
Craig Chapple, a strategist at Sensor Tower, said that not all the downloads are as organic as TikTok, which launched outside of China in 2017 and has engaged in a “large user acquisition campaign.” But he attributed some of the surge in downloads to the COVID-19 outbreak that has driven more people than ever to look for new apps.
India, TikTok’s largest international market, accounts for 30.3% of the app’s downloads, according to Sensor Tower. The app has been downloaded 611 million times in the world’s second largest internet market.
From a platform’s standpoint, 75.5% of all of TikTok’s downloads have occurred through Google Play Store. But the vast majority of spending has come from users on Apple’s ecosystem ($435.3 million of $456 million).
TikTok’s parent firm ByteDance, which was valued at $75 billion two years ago, counts Bank of China, Bank of America, Barclays Bank, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, UBS, SoftBank Group, General Atlantic, and Sequoia Capital China among some of its investors.

TikTok tops 2 billion downloads

Facebook Messenger preps Auto Status location type sharing

Facebook Messenger could soon automatically tell your closest friends you’re at the gym, driving or in Tokyo. Messenger has been spotted prototyping a ported version of the Instagram close friends-only Threads app’s Auto Status option that launched in October.
The unreleased Messenger feature would use your location, accelerometer and battery life to determine what you’re up to and share it with a specific subset of your friends. But instead of sharing your exact coordinates, it overlays an emoji on your Messenger profile pic to indicate that you’re at the movies, biking, at the airport or charging your phone.

It’s unclear if or when Messenger might launch Auto Status. But if released, the feature could become Facebook’s version of the AOL Away Message, allowing people to stay in closer touch without the creepiness of exact location sharing. It might also help people coordinate online or offline meetups by revealing what friends are up to. Auto Status creates an ice breaker, so if it says a close friend is “at a cafe,” or “chilling,” you could ask to hang out.
Back in 2016, I wrote about how exact location sharing had failed to become mainstream because knowing where someone is doesn’t tell you their intention. What matters is whether they’re free to interact with you, which none of the social networks offered.

The quest to cure loneliness

A few products, like Down To Lunch and Free, came and went in the meantime. Snapchat’s Snap Map and its acquisition of Zenly both doubled down on precise location sharing, yet still we’re often stuck home wondering if anyone we care about is similarly bored and might want to hang out.
Facebook has been experimenting in this space since at least early 2018, when its manual Emoji Status was spotted. That allowed you to append an emoji of your choosing to your Messenger profile pic. Then in October, Facebook introduced Auto Status, but only in the Instagram side-app Threads.

Some users were initially creeped out by the idea of Facebook relaying battery status. But Instagram director of Product Management Robby Stein explained to me that because you might not respond to a message if your phone goes dead or is left on the charger, it’s useful info to relay to friends who might be wondering what you’re doing.
Then earlier this month, reverse engineering master and constant TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong revealed a new, unreleased version of Emoji Status hidden in Messenger’s Android code. Then today, Wong showed off how she similarly spotted Facebook trying to port Auto Status to Messenger. That would bring the feature to more than one billion monthly users compared to the relatively small base for Threads.
With Auto Status, you can “Let specific friends see what you’re up to as you go about your day. Share location info, weather, and more, even when you’re not in the app.” Auto Status is only visible to a special list of friends you can change at any time, similar to Instagram Close Friends. And the feature shares “no addresses or place names. Just types of locations, like “at a cafe.” Movement (driving, biking, walking), venue (at the movies, airport), cities (in Tokyo) and battery status (low battery, charging) are some of categories of what Auto Status shares.
A Facebook Messenger communications representative confirmed to TechCrunch that the Auto Status feature was being prototyped by Messenger, noting that “We’re always exploring new features to improve your Messenger experience. This feature is still in early development and not externally testing.” The company also tweeted the statement.

One of the biggest unsolved problems in social networking and messaging remains knowing whether friends are free to chat or hang out without having to ask them directly. Reaching out at the wrong time only to be ignored or rejected can feel awkward or intimidating, and can discourage connection later. But if you have a vague idea of what a close friend is up to, you can more deftly plan when to message them, and be more likely to get to spend time together in person or just online.
That could be a cure to the loneliness that endless feed scrolling by ourselves can leave us feeling.

Instagram launches Threads, a Close Friends chat app with auto-status

Facebook Messenger preps Auto Status location type sharing

Under quarantine, media is actually social

The flood of status symbol content into Instagram Stories has run dry. No one is going out and doing anything cool right now, and if they are, they should be shamed for it. Beyond sharing video chat happy hour screenshots and quarantine dinner concoctions, our piece-by-piece biographies have ground to a halt. Oddly, what remains feels more social than social networks have in a long time.
With no source material, we’re doing it live. Coronavirus has absolved our desire to share the recent past. The drab days stuck inside blur into each other. The near future is so uncertain that there’s little impetus to make plans. Why schedule an event or get excited for a trip just to get your heartbroken if shelter-in-place orders are extended? We’re left firmly fixed in the present.
A house-arrest Houseparty, via StoicLeys
What is social media when there’s nothing to brag about? Many of us are discovering it’s a lot more fun. We had turned social media into a sport but spent the whole time staring at the scoreboard rather than embracing the joy of play.
But thankfully, there are no Like counts on Zoom .
Nothing permanent remains. That’s freed us from the external validation that too often rules our decision making. It’s stopped being about how this looks and started being about how this feels. Does it put me at peace, make me laugh, or abate the loneliness? Then do it. There’s no more FOMO because there’s nothing to miss by staying home to read, take a bath, or play board games. You do you.
Being social animals, what feels most natural is to connect. Not asynchronously through feeds of what we just did. But by coexisting concurrently. Professional enterprise technology for agenda-driven video calls has been subverted for meandering, motive-less togetherness. We’re doing what many of us spent our childhoods doing in basements and parking lots: just hanging out.
It’s time to Houseparty
For evidence, just look at group video chat app Houseparty, where teens aimlessly chill with everyone’s face on screen at once. In Italy, which has tragically been on lock down since COVID-19’s rapid spread in the country, Houseparty wasn’t even in the top 1500 apps a month ago. Today it’s the #1 social app, and the #2 app overall second only to Zoom which is topping the charts in tons of countries.
Houseparty topped all the charts on Monday, when Sensor Tower tells TechCrunch the app’s download rate was 323X higher than its average in February. As of yesterday it was #1 in Portugal (up 371X) and Spain (up 592X), as well as Peru, Argentina, Chile, Austria, Belgium, and the U.K. I despite being absent from the chart a week earlier. Apptopia tells me Houseparty saw 25 downloads in Spain on March 1st and 40,000 yesterday.
Houseparty rockets to #1 in many countries
A year ago Houseparty was nearly dead, languishing at #245 on the US charts before being acquired by Fortnite-maker Epic in June. Our sudden need for unmediated connection has brought Houseparty roaring back to life, even if Epic has neglected to update it since July.
“Houseparty was designed to connect people in the most human way possible when they are physically apart” the startup’s co-founder Ben Rubin tells me. “This is a time of isolation and uncertainty for us all. I’m grateful that we created a product that gives a sense of human connection to millions people during this critical moment.”
Around the world, apps for direct connection are spiking. Google Hangouts rules in Sweden. Discord for chat while gaming is #1 in France. Slack clone Microsoft Teams is king in the Netherlands. After binging through Netflix, all that’s left to entertain us is each other.
Undivided By Geography
If we’re all stuck at home, it doesn’t matter where that home is. We’ve been released from the confines of which friends are within a 20 minute drive or hour-long train. Just like students are saying they all go to Zoom University since every school’s classes moved online, we all now live in Zoom Town. All commutes have been reduced to how long it takes to generate an invite URL.
Nestled in San Francisco, even pals across the Bay in Berkeley felt far away before. But this week I had hour-long video calls with my favorite people who typically feel out of reach in Chicago and New York. I spent time with babies I hadn’t met in person. And I kept in closer touch with my parents on the other coast, which is more vital and urgent than ever before.
Playing board game Codenames over Zoom with friends in New York and North Carolina
Typically, our time is occupied by acquaintances of circumstance. The co-workers who share our office. The friends who happen to live in the neighborhood. But now we’re each building a virtual family completely of our choosing. The calculus has shifted from who is convenient or who invites us to the most exciting place, to who makes us feel most human.
Even celebrities are getting into it. Rather than pristine portraits and flashy music videos, they’re appearing raw, with crappy lighting, on Facebook and Instagram Live. John Legend played piano for 100,000 people while his wife Chrissy Teigen sat on screen in a towel looking salty like she’s heard “All Of Me” far too many times. That’s more authentic than anything you’ll get on TV.
And without the traditional norms of who we are and aren’t supposed to call, there’s an opportunity to contact those we cared about in a different moment of our lives. The old college roommate, the high school buddy, the mentor who gave you you’re shot. If we have the emotional capacity in these trying times, there’s good to be done. Who do you know who’s single, lives alone, or resides in a city without a dense support network?
Reforging those connections not only surfaces prized memories we may have forgotten, but could help keep someone sane. For those who relied on work and play for social interaction, shelter-in-place is essentially solitary confinement. There’s a looming mental health crisis if we don’t check in on the isolated.
The crisis language of memes
It can be hard to muster the energy to seize these connections, though. We’re all drenched in angst about the health impacts of the virus and financial impacts of the response. I certainly spent a few mornings sleeping in just to make the days feel shorter. When all small talk leads to rehashing our fears, sometimes you don’t have anything to say.
Luckily we don’t have to say anything to communicate. We can share memes instead.
My father-in-law sent me this. That’s when you know memes have become the universal language
The internet’s response to COVID-19 has been an international outpour of gallow’s humor. From group chats to Instagram joke accounts to Reddit threads to Facebook groups like quarter-million member “Zoom Memes For Quaranteens”, we’re joining up to weather the crisis.
A nervous laugh is better than no laugh at all. Memes allow us to convert our creeping dread and stir craziness into something borderline productive. We can assume an anonymous voice, resharing what some unspecified other made without the vulnerability of self-attribution. We can dive into the creation of memes ourselves, killing time under house arrest in hopes of generating smiles for our generation. And with the feeds and Stories emptied, consuming memes offers a new medium of solidarity. We’re all in this hellscape together so we may as well make fun of it.

The web’s mental immune system has kicked into gear amidst the outbreak. Rather than wallowing in captivity, we’ve developed digital antibodies that are evolving to fight the solitude. We’re spicing up video chats with board games like Codenames. One-off livestreams have turned into wholly online music festivals to bring the sounds of New Orleans or Berlin to the world. Trolls and pranksters are finding ways to get their lulz too, Zoombombing webinars. And after a half-decade of techlash, our industry’s leaders are launching peer-to-peer social safety nets and ways to help small businesses survive until we can be patrons in person again.
Rather than scrounging for experiences to share, we’re inventing them from scratch with the only thing we’re left with us in quarantine: ourselves. When the infection waves pass, I hope this swell of creativity and in-the-moment togetherness stays strong. The best part of the internet isn’t showing off, it’s showing up.

Under quarantine, media is actually social