How a Chat App for Burning Man Turned Into a Tool for Revolution

Firechat partners with Storyful for newsgathering

Open Garden's messaging app Firechat was initially launched as a way for people at festivals like Burning Man to communicate when they were off-the-grid using WiFi, Bluetooth or Apple's multipeer connectivity framework. What its founders didn't bank on is users relying on it to send messages during civil uprisings. 

Embracing its journalism potential, Firechat announced that it was partnering with news-gathering platform Storyful on Wednesday to create Open Live Newsroom, a place for verified journalists to chat with citizens around the world.

Open Garden chief marketing officer Christophe Daligault explained that when Firechat launched about a year ago, its founders were hoping that Firechat would take off at music festivals, on public transportation without Internet access and developing countries. A week after they launched, the company noticed it was being heavily used during the Sunflower Student Movement protests in Taiwan. Then, it noticed huge download numbers when the Umbrella Revolution took place in Hong Kong in September 2014.

"We saw half a million people using Firechat during the first 10 days of those protests, which is impressive considering there are just 7 million people on the island," Daligault said.

The tipping point was when former Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told his supporters to download Firechat in case the government shut down communication on Dec. 30, 2014. About 25,000 people downloaded Firechat that day. He continued to send messages, including one the moment he was being arrested.

There were some issues, however. Firechat is anonymous (although not private or securely encrypted) so there is no way to trust if the information being shared was true. For example, during the Hong Kong protests, Daligault said users were posting statements that the army was headed into areas with real bullets, when that wasn't the case at all.

"We didn't know who was spreading that information," Daligault said. "It could be shopkeepers trying to get people away from their areas. We needed trusted sources of information, so we started bringing in journalists with verified accounts."

The Storyful partnership is an evolution of that idea. Ideally, Open Live Newsroom could provide a resource for on-the-ground reporting in addition to a place for communities to get the most up-to-date, accurate information on their areas.

"The continued adoption of mobile globally combined with the replacement of traditional SMS has led to an absolute explosion in the use of messaging apps… Storyful is in the business of discovering and verifying the most valuable content from the social web for our partners so it makes perfect sense for us to begin looking much closer at this space," Storyful CEO Rahul Chopra said. 

The Firechat rooms also open up a potential revenue source. Daligault said there's been advertiser interest in sponsoring rooms for themed conversations since they don't have the distracting, non-branded chatter of Facebook and Twitter. For example, Firechat worked with the Ultimate Music Experience in South Padre Island on March 19 through 21 to host a branded room.

In addition, Open Garden is also looking to monetize by selling its technology services. One of its partners is Trackr, a way to find lost items using a small device. Trackr is working with Firechat to tap into its service so people can find their goods regardless if there is Internet access. Daligault said he's also getting interest from other app makers and mobile game companies who want to let users play games in airplane mode.

"We are in a sense creating a new type of network for phones that can connect you with one another, even when the Internet is not available," he said.