Is Pied Piper Serious? How HBO Inspired Crypto's Most Confounding Coin

What began as a parody quickly became a coin. Soon it might – might – become its own blockchain. What is happening?

AccessTimeIconJul 17, 2018 at 4:06 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 8:10 a.m. UTC
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"Hey … this is Craig Wright."

It wasn't, but that was far from the strangest part of the conversation.

Thus began CoinDesk's attempts to determine the identity and intent of the individuals behind "Pied Piper Coin," a parody Twitter account inspired by the HBO series "Silicon Valley." Chronicling a plucky startup that suffers hilarious slings and arrows in its quest to remake the internet, the TV show had its characters conduct an initial coin offering (ICO) in May.

So, no one was exactly surprised when, a couple of days later, a Twitter account for the fictional token, Pied Piper Coin, showed up. Less clear, however, was who was behind the account.

Many took it for the kind of corporate Twitter that's fast become fashionable in an age where MoonPie is an absurdist comedy juggernaut. If a has-been confectionary can capture the social zeitgeist, why not HBO? But if that was the case, corporate had given Pied Piper Coin a long leash.

The account's first tweet promised an airdrop – a free distribution of free crypto money – and told followers to tag exchanges so that they'd support the coin (in what would become a pattern, it worked in a dig at Bittrex). In private messages, Pied Piper Coin told us that Craig Wright was behind the account, that XRP was a security, and that yes, the airdrop was real.

But as time went on, Pied Piper Coin's enthusiasm for stoking crypto animosities made HBO backing seem less and less likely.

Interspersed with Silicon Valley-themed jokes about palapas, Teslas and LaVeyan Satanism, the account was laying into crypto's favorite punching bags – not just Ripple (which claims it did not issue XRP) and Craig Wright (who claimed to be Satoshi Nakamoto and utterly failed to prove it), but:

  • Rhett Creighton (who forked zcash, merge-forked that fork into bitcoin, then proposed another merge-fork of bitcoin);
  • John McAfee (for his unorthodox social media evangelism);
  • CoinMarketCap (which listed Bitconnect, which is accused of being a Ponzi scheme);
  • Tron (which allegedly plagiarized its white paper);
  • Iota (which was too quick to call Microsoft its "partner");
  • Roger Ver (a bitcoin evangelist who pledged allegiance to bitcoin cash and then insisted on calling it "bitcoin");

Certainly, the account's fluency in crypto argot, memes and beefs was impressive. But who was it, and what was their goal? Eventually the person behind "@piedpipercoin" stated in their bio that they have nothing to do with HBO. (CoinDesk reached out to HBO to confirm that, but they did not respond before press time.) But far from being settled, things only got stranger after that.

At first it seemed pretty clear what was happening. A principled prankster was using "Silicon Valley" memesas a megaphone to call out bad actors and inject some healthy skepticism into crypto Twitter.

The person behind the Pied Piper account told CoinDesk:

"We are using humor to help remind the cryptosphere of all the shady things that have occurred and to help the broader community avoid these mistakes. […] People need to learn their history before they can progress into the future. Our way of teaching is through humor."

Others were inspired to follow their lead, with the crypto-meme ecosystem expanding beyond Pied Piper Coin.

PPCash insisted that its "vision of the new internet has been the true path from the start" (a send-up of bitcoin cash originalism). Meanwhile HooliCoin promised, "Soon the world will understand centralized cryptos are the way of the future" (a parody of corporate blockchains).

Yet amid all the jokes, Pied Piper Coin appeared to be serious about doing an airdrop. And that would complicate matters.

A scam?

The integration of a real cryptocurrency into the experience left a bad taste in the mouths of fans.

Neeraj Agrawal, the head of communications at the cryptocurrency policy think tank Coin Center and a powerful engine of crypto-memes in his own right, laid into Pied Piper Coin days after its appearance.

He wrote:

"Leave it to crypto to turn a mention of your thing on a popular TV show from cute parody account to scam airdrop within a week."

The narrative that Pied Piper Coin's creators might be out for a quick buck took hold as it became clear that the project was, in fact, creating an ethereum-based token. The creator's continued anonymity and a brief media blitz, in which he appeared on crypto YouTube shows wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and a Peter Pan hat, did little to counter that perception.

As May progressed, the price of PPI ("PPC" was taken) shot from a couple of cents to over $1. It has since fallen back down to nearly nothing.

Many of the ingredients of a classic crypto scam appear to be there: marketing that (briefly) implied backing from a legitimate, mainstream entity; an unaccountable team; a token without a product; aggressive social media promotion; a brief spike in the price followed by a long jaunt towards oblivion.

Plus, on May 28, the piper (let's call him that) sold 4,500 PPI over the counter "to recoup some costs from the coin."

And yet there are a couple of problems with this tidy scam narrative: Pied Piper Coin, as its creator pointed out on Twitter and in an interview with CoinDesk, never accepted investor money. It was a free airdrop, not an ICO. And we know about the OTC sale because the piper announced it publicly.

Whether Pied Piper Coin is remembered as a scam will likely depend on whether it follows through with its masked founder's increasingly ambitious promises.

Seriously serious

While corresponding with Pied Piper Coin's creator, it became clear he was serious – or at a minimum, serious about convincing us he was serious.

"PPI will have one of the biggest communities in crypto. We believe a lot of developers will be building on top of Piperchain," he said.

A one-pager posted to Steemit in late May straddled the line between parody and roadmap, proposing forking one of a few major blockchain protocols to create Piperchain and building decentralized applications (dapps) on top of it – but closing with a flurry of trolly hashtags: #HailSatan #WenPalapa #WenTesla.

In an email a couple of weeks later, though, the piper was adamant that Piperchain would happen – in Q3 no less.

The line separating plans from parody was still fuzzy, though. "Hopefully we integrate all the fluff words," he wrote: "Masternodes, Atomic Swaps, Sharding, Plasma, Lightning, etc."

In a call in mid-June, however, the piper had much more concrete plans for Piperchain: a fork of EOS that removes the constitution, increases the number of block producers (the network participants who maintain the blockchain) from 21 to 50, and decreases the number of tokens that participants need to stake. (He's no longer targeting Q3, he added.)

Between questions to a server about what a "fully dressed" grilled chicken sandwich entailed and side-bar conversations with Kenn Bosak, a cryptocurrency and cannabis enthusiast, the piper explained two dapps that a team of four developers ("stallions") was building to run on Piperchain.

One would let users vote on which of two memes they prefer, with tokens going to the winning side, he said. The other would use geocaching to allow users to complete quests in the physical world.

(At the time of writing, the roadmap on the project's site is still firmly in parody territory.)

The piper said that he and Bosak were on their way to make a "surprise appearance" at Dogecon.

Dogecoin's heir

Perhaps the appearance shouldn't have been a surprise. Pied Piper Coin's founder told CoinDesk in early June, "We see dogecoin as the standard bearer for the meme-coin space."

And, to be fair, memecoins have turned over the years into somewhat of a cottage industry. First gaining traction in 2014, dogecoin may have faded away, but it never actually died. (Its market cap even briefly passed $1 billion in 2017).

Dogecon, a four day "un-convention," further brought together dogecoin enthusiasts in Vancouver in late June. The event was a showcase of what's made the project so appealing: its large, dedicated fanbase who won't let the joke go.

In this environment, Pied Piper Coin might even make sense. Dogecoin, founded by Jackson Palmer and Billy Markus in 2013, is the original memecoin, growing out of a popular image in which a nervous-looking Shiba Inu uses "very" and "such" wrong.

Its community has combined a serious devotion to the decentralized idea of cryptocurrencies with utter refusal to take themselves seriously. And unlike so many cryptocurrency projects that promised to decentralize the world and make their investors fabulously rich, only to fail in a more or less dramatic fashion, dogecoin has survived through nearly five years of enthusiastic self-parody.

Watching the piper sit on a panel with Palmer and discuss the philosophy of memes, the question of whether he's "serious" seemed just as absurd as the question of why he's dressed that way – or why grown men and women are talking about dog-themed internet money – would in any other context.

Among Palmer's other side projects is "are we decentralized yet?", a site that tracks various metrics of decentralization for major cryptocurrencies. Pied Piper Coin's founder appears to share a similar set of priorities, and was quick to decry the warped motivations he sees as taking over crypto.

He told CoinDesk:

"Too much of the space is empowering those very things we were wishing to overthrow. The space is getting excited about Wall Street and banks getting involved with the space. It shows people are more interested in their own individual greed than the actual reason crypto was created."

Dogecoin and Pied Piper Coin seem to occupy the same delicate singularity, where sincere – even naive – idealism and cynical parody are one.

In the spirit of memes, though, a picture is worth more than words:

pied piper coin dogecoin jackson palmer
pied piper coin dogecoin jackson palmer

Last supper image courtesy of Pied Piper Coin


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