Off-grid messaging app FireChat now lets you stay on topic by creating communities

When Open Garden launched FireChat in March, millions of users downloaded its app, presumably intrigued by its ability to set up chat sessions between nearby and anonymous users without an internet connection acting as an intermediary. But the one big knock on FireChat has been that it almost completely lacked any structure. Open Garden hopes to change that with the introduction of its first app update, FireChat 2.

Previously, if you used FireChat’s “global” mode, you were stuck into a random chat room with 80 other folks, all of whom had only their country of residence in common. If you went into “nearby” mode you were connected to all of the iOS(s aapl) or Android(s goog) FireChat users in your vicinity using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios, but with no other common bond between them except mere proximity.

While some users appeared to like the chaos of FireChat, Open Garden has decided to at least give its customers the option of imposing some order on those random conversations. Open Garden updated its Android and iPhone apps on Monday to add topic-based chat sessions that any user can create.

A FireChat session under the topic "San Francisco" (source: Open Garden)

A FireChat session under the topic “San Francisco” (source: Open Garden)

The topic threads, called firechats, work both offline and on, so even if you’re just messaging with other users in your vicinity you can keep the conversation on topic. For instance, one of Open Garden’s interns set up an off-grid fire chat for his roommates since they live in a place with bad cell coverage and no Wi-Fi, said Christophe Daligault, Open Garden VP of sales and marketing. But the tool could also be used to set up topical hyperlocal conversations on the fly. For instance, fans at a music festival could discuss the band currently on stage, or FireChat users stuck on a delayed train car in NYC’s subways could vent about their issues with the MTA.

The topics are all open — since all users are anonymous, Open Garden can’t really restrict who joins what. Users can also invite each other to specific topics through traditional communication and social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook, SMS and email. Open Garden also plans to promote popular firechat rooms within the app.

FireChat's largest user base is in the U.S. but  its seeing big uptake in markets like India (source: Open Garden)

FireChat’s largest user base is in the U.S. but its seeing big uptake in markets like India (source: Open Garden)

Since launching, FireChat has cracked the top 10 social media apps in app stores in 115 countries, spurred recently by its launch on Android, Daligault said. And while a lot of people who downloaded the app tried it once and forgot about it, FireChat has started building a consistent following. Though it can only track users who engage in global chats — and thus connect to its servers — 15 percent of its install base have become daily active users, engaging in a median average of 2.5 active sessions every 24 hours, Daligault said.