Meet the Blockchain Startup That Inspired HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ Season 5
When HBO’s Silicon Valley wanted its fictional startup Pied Piper to build a “new Internet” for season 5, the comedy series turned to a real-life blockchain company doing just that.
Blockstack, a New Jersey-based startup cofounded in 2013 by Muneeb Ali and Ryan Shea, is developing a platform for blockchain-powered web applications—or as Blockstack calls it, “a new decentralized Internet.” If that sounds familiar to Silicon Valley fans, it’s not a coincidence: Blockstack’s cofounders served as advisors to Silicon Valley Season 5.
Ali and Shea revealed their participation in the series on this week’s episode of “Balancing the Ledger,” Fortune’s new show about the intersection of finance and technology.
In the fifth season of Silicon Valley, which aired its finale last month, Pied Piper pivots to create a decentralized version of the Internet, and (spoiler alert!) parodies the trend of startups raising money through initial coin offerings (instead of through traditional venture capital), eventually launching its own cryptocurrency called Pied Piper Coin.
That somewhat echoes the path of Blockstack, which has traditional VC funding from the likes of Y Combinator and Union Square Ventures, and also raised $50 million last fall in a sale of its tokens, called Stacks, to more than 800 accredited investors. (The tokens will live on Blockstack’s forthcoming blockchain, the distributed ledger technology that also underlies Bitcoin.) The cryptocurrency will ultimately be used to incentivize the development of high-quality apps on Blockstack, awarding tokens to developers of popular and well-reviewed products through a process called “app rewards mining.”
But there’s nothing satirical about Blockstack’s mission. “We’re building a new decentralized Internet, and the goal is to allow people to be in control of their digital lives,” explains Shea. “Really, this whole thing is to build an entire economy that is decentralized.”
HBO showrunners approached Blockstack after apparently noticing the similarity in the startup’s marketing language to the plot line they sought to create. While Shea is modest about Blockstack’s involvement—”Yes, well, we don’t say it’s based on us,” he says—he and Ali recognized traces of their input in certain details in the show, such as when Pied Piper’s chief systems architect (and Bitcoin miner) Bertram Gilfoyle gives an epic PowerPoint presentation about the potential of cryptocurrency.
“A lot of the conversations were about what we’ve been working on, what we’ve been doing, what some of our future plans were, so I think their goal was to draw some inspiration from us and other projects,” says Shea, noting that a rival decentralized Internet project, MaidSafe, also advised on the show. Adds Ali, “They get the details right, to the extent that if you’re a hardcore engineer, there’s something there for you to appreciate.”
In real life, though, a new decentralized Internet has the power to allow consumers to own and control their own data, Shea says, and carry it with them when they switch from one application to the next—rather than entrusting it to big corporations like Facebook, which has recently betrayed that trust by sharing millions of users’ data with various third parties. Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower turned privacy advocate, for one, was recently enticed by the decentralized secure messaging app, Stealthy, built atop Blockstack, and took it for a test drive at a Blockstack event. “It was very interesting to see that people who are that concerned about privacy are actually trying out these decentralized apps for messaging,” Ali says.
Now, Blockstack is hoping to encourage developers to create decentralized social networks by committing $1 million to fund promising projects—whether that be “decentralized Facebook or decentralized Twitter equivalents,” or “things that we couldn’t have ever imagined,” Shea says. (If that sounds reminiscent of Silicon Valley character Jian-Yang’s schemes to build the “new Facebook” and “new Snapchat,” it’s unintentional.)
“If all of the vision of decentralization is realized…decades from now people will look at storing the data for billions of users in one central location as preposterous,” he explains. “Because at the end of the day this, what we call the new decentralized Internet, will just be the Internet.”
And no, it won’t be developed by Jian-Yang.