Yes, the click farms on HBO's 'Silicon Valley' are a real thing and they aren't going away

Warning: There are spoilers ahead for “Silicon Valley.”
In the Sunday season finale of “Silicon Valley,” Pied Piper nearly collapses after Richard Hendricks admits to using a “click farm.”

It makes for a compelling story, but unless you’re an expert in the ways of the web business, you might find yourself wondering just how realistic that plot was.

So here’s the deal.

If you make things for the internet, your career sinks or floats on an ocean of clicks. That’s true in journalism, on YouTube, and for app creators like the guys on “Silicon Valley.”

People like to disparage the click — we brand bad online writing “clickbait“; The Onion christened its bizzaro-Buzzfeed Clickhole. But the click is a unit of trust and value. It’s a vote of interest from users in the thing you’re making.

On the show, Pied Piper had found a lot of users willing to download its storage app. The problem? Few were actually using it. That was a bad sign to potential investors. If people don’t click on an app once its downloaded, that’s a vote of no-confidence of the kind that could bury a company.

So Jared Dunn went out and hired a “click farm” to use the app, creating a fake spike in user interest.

Click farms really do exist. An Associated Press report in 2014 pointed toward companies, usually based in south and southeast Asia, that sold everything from YouTube views to Facebook likes to LinkedIn connections by the thousands for just a few bucks a pop. Sometimes robots do the work, but underpaid workers tapping away on computers are also common.

There haven’t been any prominent public examples of a click farm doing exactly the kind of multi-step work needed to fake daily active users of an app, as depicted on “Silicon Valley.” But there isn’t necessarily any reason why they couldn’t — though a Quora user points out that it might be easier and more effective for a scheming company to just lie.

A major company admitting faking user interest to con investors out of cash would absolutely be a massive scandal. Even discovering click farms on Facebook fan pages has tanked companies in the past.

So while we’ve never seen a click farm scandal of the exact kind “Silicon Valley” depicts, this sort of deceit happens all the time. Click farms are a big, bad business.

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