Firechat, Open Garden‘s mobile chat app that uses a mesh network to let you chat with the people around you even when there is no Internet connection, has seen a huge uptick in usage wherever there is a government that wants to suppress free speech. In Hong Kong, for example, the company saw 460,000 downloads in the last week and the service hosted over 5.1 million chat sessions in the area. With that, Firechat usage in Hong Kong now only trails the U.S. in the company’s stats.
One of the reasons the service is so popular during these events is that Firechat allows users to stay completely anonymous. Starting today, however, the company is also launching verified accounts for those users who do want to use their real names to make sure they aren’t impersonated. Open Garden tells me that there are only a few people in this program right now.
“We are very careful with the selection process, and will grow the number of verified accounts only progressively,” a spokesperson told me.
Among the first verified users is Patrick Boehler, a reporter at the South China Morning Post who also teaches journalism at the University of Hong Kong.
“We think that verified names will be useful for journalists, educators and community leaders so they can address a very large audience at once but also have real time discussions,” the Firechat team noted. “You can’t do that on Twitter and Facebook today.”