When AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, officially ended in December 2017 it felt like the end of an era for everyone who grew up before Instagram DMs and Snapchat put a Gen Z spin on messaging and redefined after-school chatting. Even though the little yellow running man hadn't been relevant in years, mentions of buddy lists, screen names, and away messages sparked an instant wave of nostalgia.
That nostalgia might resurface today, as Houseparty, the group video chat app that was launched in late 2016 and has quickly become one of the popular kids among the under-24 crowd, announced it will expand its services from mobile to Macs.
The new Houseparty Mac app looks incredibly similar to the old AIM chat box, with one major difference: Instead of text-based messaging, you can "join the party" and enter video chats with as many as eight people at a time. Houseparty is selling it as a new version of AIM that comes with a face-to-face option. Most of the features from Houseparty's iPhone app are available on the desktop version: You can tap to "wave" to let friends know you're online and ready to chat, set your status to "around" (Houseparty's version of the away message), or sign off completely.
While the move might seem unusual — why would a popular, modern-day app bother with reviving an old way of chatting on desktop? — it makes sense. When you enter a video chat party on your iPhone, you can't multitask: In order to see everyone else, you need to stay in the app and can't leave to respond to texts or check Instagram. When you chat via the Mac app, you can see everyone, but continue checking notifications on your phone or minimize the video screen to answer emails on your laptop.
Houseparty may be built for the generations that grew up on screens, but it sees itself as a purer, more authentic form of virtual communication. "A big part of our mission is to connect people in the most meaningful way when they are physically apart," Sima Sistani, Houseparty's cofounder told Refinery29. "The way we achieve that is through something we call presence. I think there's something really special about having the right facial expression as opposed to the right emoji."
Houseparty's credo fits into a growing wellbeing trend in the tech industry that emphasizes spending less time online, but making sure that time is well spent and with the people you care about. Earlier this year, Facebook changed its News Feed algorithm to prioritize posts from friends and family over those of public figures, brands, and organizations; last month, Google promoted JOMO (joy of missing out) and Instagram announced plans to introduce a feature that tells you how long you are on the app.
The average Houseparty user spends 51 minutes in the app, with an average of 23 friends. If you think about your number of friends, plus the public figures and brands you follow, on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat — the count is probably far higher than Houseparty's relatively low number. Sistani sees this small figure as a good thing, and a more accurate indicator of real-life friend groups.
"We’re facing a loneliness epidemic," Sistani said. "People feel like they’re connected on social media because that’s the promise of these [other] platforms. Houseparty is not as good as being with someone in real time, but it is delivering a better result than some of the other options that are out there in terms of connecting."