Facebook is building a standalone app that incorporates ideas from Houseparty, the group video chat app that rose from the ashes of Meerkat, The Verge has learned. The app, which has the working name Bonfire, was recently demonstrated for employees. It is being targeted for a fall release, according to a person familiar with the matter. “We don’t have anything to share at this time,” a Facebook spokeswoman said.
Facebook’s move comes two years after Life On Air, which had helped usher in a new era of live broadcasting with its app Meerkat, pivoted to group video chat. The company’s founder, Ben Rubin, observed that most people never broadcasted more than a handful of times — whether on Meerkat or its eventual competitors, Facebook Live and Twitter-owned Periscope. And so Rubin and his team built Houseparty, which notifies a user’s friends whenever they have the app open, inviting them to hang out virtually on their smartphones.
The app took off among teenagers, and by November 2016 it had 1.2 million users spending 20 million minutes a day using it. For Facebook, few competitive threats are as worrisome as a new social network growing quickly among teenagers. It’s why the company first tried to acquire Snapchat, and, once rebuffed, invested heavily in cloning its most distinctive features. Houseparty’s continued growth — it is currently a top 200 app in Apple’s US App Store, according to market research firm App Annie — all but guaranteed Facebook would explore copying it.
Details about how Bonfire works could not be learned, though one person described it as essentially a clone of Houseparty. If that’s the case, the launch of Bonfire could pose a significant challenge for Rubin’s team. Should it overtake Houseparty, it would represent the second time in as many years that a Life On Air innovation is squashed by larger competitors. (Houseparty declined to comment.)
At the same time, Facebook’s track record with cloned products has been mixed. Slingshot and Bolt, two earlier Facebook apps designed to blunt Snapchat’s momentum, died quick deaths. And while the company appears to have struck gold with Instagram stories, its refined take on Snapchat’s ephemeral public posts, similar products in the main Facebook app and in Facebook Messenger have generated little enthusiasm among users.
But Houseparty’s core function — bringing close groups of friends together — encroaches on Facebook’s newly restated mission statement, which focuses on building tight-knit communities. That Houseparty employs video, the current obsession of the tech-media industrial complex, only gives Facebook more reason to study it.
Bonfire is not the only standalone video app Facebook is pursuing, sources said. Employees were also recently shown an app called Talk. While details were scarce, one source said the app is designed to encourage younger people to communicate with their grandparents using video chat. Talk’s existence was first reported last month by The Information.