Trends in entertainment can give us fascinating insights into the themes that dominate our minds. Sometimes, fantasy worlds can even overshadow the real thing. For example, the world’s biggest innovation hub, Silicon Valley in California, is a constant source of curiosity, interest and research. The hit comedy series of the same name, not so much – except when a new season aired.
Throughout the release schedule of each season, as episodes aired weekly, interest in the TV series spiked dramatically above interest in the geographic region. But here is where it got especially interesting: every time search trends peaked for the series, they also peaked for the region (see our trends graph here).
That suggests the show has done great things for the profile of the region. But that’s hardly the intention of the series. It is, at times, a vicious satire of the excesses of Silicon Valley, as The Plum List indicated in December.
From that perspective, the increased interest in the start-up heart of the world is less likely to be a result of the warm glow of innovation, and more because viewers want to get a deeper insight into the hideous characters behind some of the storylines.
During the fourth season, back in 2017, series showrunner Alec Berg acknowledged that the writers found inspiration for the storylines in real events and people. “We try not to do one to one corollaries, but we definitely are paying attention,” he told Business Insider. However, he insisted that they tried to stick to “types” of people found in Silicon Valley, rather than actual individuals.
But given the double-o in its name, the ill-fated Hooli is almost certainly a reworking of Google. That makes its founder, Gavin Belson, an amalgam of Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
How close an amalgam? So close that Belson wore the same style of absurd “five fingers” running shoes as Brin. But Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti insisted on his own site that Belson was modelled on Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, as both are “bettering the world through charity, destroying the competition, and seeking spiritual council from gurus”.
Having personally met Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, I can vouch for him being a good match for the public persona exuded by Barker.
One of the most unpleasant characters in the show is Jack Barker, who mounts a coup at the core start-up of the series, Pied Piper. During the second season, he briefly replaces Richard Hendricks – a deeply geeky character believed to be modelled on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Barker’s back story is driven by the experience of former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who underwent a similar rise and fall at Twitter – and then became a story consultant to the series. Costolo and Barker even look similar.
However, a general consensus is that Barker was more closely modelled on one-time Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Under his leadership, Microsoft’s share price remained stagnant for 15 years, the company dismissed the smartphone revolution when Apple launched the iPhone, and then failed to join that revolution with the ill-fated Windows Phone initiative, which also took down the Nokia brand.
Having personally met Ballmer, I can vouch for him being a good match for the public persona exuded by Barker.
According to Rex Sorgatz, writing in Wired, the producers consulted with more than 250 Silicon Valley insiders. Sorgatz provided an alarmingly detailed cheat sheet, drawing up a pie chart for the main characters to illustrate the likelihood of their representing each of the real Silcion Valley personalities with whom they had been linked.
The last (and first) word goes to Aaron Levie, co-founder of Silicon Valley start-up Box. When the series first aired, he tweeted: