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FireChat hopes to tame trolls with make-your-own chat rooms

I'm sure you can imagine the downside of an anonymous chat app with only two modes, Global and Nearby. Of course there are trolls, racists, and your run-of-the-mill Internet scum. Off-the grid messaging app FireChat has learned a few lessons since launching on iOS on March, followed by an Android app in April. Namely, the FireChat team realized that people needed more control over their messaging experience.

On Monday, FireChat rolled out an update for iOS and Android that lets you create your own room. If Nearby and Global are both overrun with weirdos, you can make a room for your neighborhood or your favorite TV show. If you get bored, you can jump back and forth between rooms, all while remaining entirely anonymous.

"What we saw on the app was really polarizing," said FireChat chief marketing officer Christophe Daligault. "People told us. 'What the heck is this? We're deleting this instantly.' They were put off by some of the randomness going on out there. Then other people were saying, 'This is fun and nuts and I love that it's really fast-paced. It makes my Facebook feed move at a glacial pace.' People like the fact that it's light and anonymous but they don't like the fact that there are trolls and weird people drawn to doing crazy things. We decided to enable people to create their own FireChats. You can create a space that can have light and anonymous discussions that can focus on anything you like."

Every FireChat conversation is public, so there's no locking the door on your self-created chat room, even if it's designed just for your roommates.

Bigger implications than Coachella

Trolls and weirdos aside, FireChat is built on an interesting concept: That you can chat with people anywhere in the world, even without cell reception or Wi-Fi. The iOS version leverages the Multipeer Connectivity Framework baked into iOS 7, while the Android app is built on FireChat's own mesh networking technology.

FireChat's developers originally pitched the app as a way for people to connect at music festivals like Coachella or on a camping trip in the wilderness, but found that it could potentially have a much broader reach. Daligault said Taiwanese students used the app during a recent protest because they were concerned that the government might interfere with the Internet. FireChat is seeing high rates of adoption in areas where Internet connectivity can be challenging or messaging expensive, like the Middle East, India, Brazil, and Mexico.

If FireChat catches on internationally, it could replace Twitter as a preeminent social channel for political organizing, with the added bonus of being less public but equally accessible.

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