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Hint: probably a lot bigger than you think
If you even begin to think about how big the internet is, your brain might start to hurt. And how do you even measure the size of the internet? We might never be able to fully understand the depths of the World Wide Web, but there are a few different ways to approach it.
We’re going to talk in byte-sizes, which is a unit of digital memory. (It isn’t exact, but think of each letter of every word on this page as being comprised of one byte.)
How much data lives on the internet?
Let’s start with the big players — the major online storage companies. Science Focus estimates that Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook collectively store at least 1,200 petabytes. (That’s not even including well-known storage sites like Dropbox.)
A thousand gigabytes equals a terabyte – or 1 million megabytes. So, 1,200 petabytes is 1.2 million terabytes. Putting this in perspective, a three-minute song uses about three megabytes of storage, which means that at 1,200 petabytes, those four companies alone hold about enough data for 400 trillion songs or 1.2 quadrillion minutes of music. That’s more than 2.2 billion years of audio…which means if the first single-celled organisms on Earth pressed play, we’d still have a few thousand years of Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber left.
Got all that?
The internet seems endless, and we don’t know if it will ever reach full capacity. It is all run on servers. Which means the only way to run out of space is if we cannot add anymore hardware. In 2014, Live Science estimated the limits of the internet to be 1 million exabytes. An exabyte is 1 billion billion bytes (that’s 18 zeros after the 1). The King James edition of the Bible contains 3,116,480 letters, so one exabyte alone holds more than 320 billion Bibles’ worth of text. If you stacked them up, you’d have 16,000 stacks of bibles reaching the moon… with some left to spare.
How much data is transferred?
To get a better idea of how big the internet is, we can look at how much data is transferred on the web. As of 2016, Cisco estimated global internet traffic to be 1.1 zettabytes per year, with that number increasing to two zettabytes by the end of 2019. If you’re scratching your head breaking down exactly what that means (understandable), one zettabyte = one sextillion bytes (that’s 21 zeros after the 1) or 1,000 exabytes.
Think of it like this: a single zettabyte contains enough high-definition video to play for 36,000 years. Imagine that each brick in the Great Wall of China is a gigabyte; you could build 258 Great Walls of China with one zettabyte. If the amount of data transferred globally reaches two zettabytes by the end of the year as predicted, that’s 2,000 exabytes. Assuming that the internet’s capacity is 1 million exabytes, we are far from reaching its limits.
So, what’s filling all of this space? As of June 2019, the indexed web was estimated to host 5.85 billion pages — and that’s just the activity reached via search engines. And, no, things aren’t slowing down; the internet has almost doubled in size every year since 2012.
If you were to download the entire web, it would take approximately 11 trillion years. And to store all of that data? You’d need a lot of hard drives — specifically 1,000 8’x10’ rooms each filled with 450 2-terabyte storage drives.
It’ll take a group effort to reach the limits of the internet, but there already are lots (and lots and lots and lots) of people trying their best. As of January 2018, an estimated 4 billion people were online — that’s more than half of the world’s population. The same year, more than 3 billion people — 75% of internet users — were on social media.
If you’re wondering how your internet activity stacks up to those other billions of users, as of May 2018 every minute, people watched 4,146,600 YouTube videos, posted 456,000 tweets, sent 156 million emails and swiped 990,000 times on Tinder. (Though the data did not specify if they were left or right swipes.) Additionally, five new Facebook profiles were created every second.
Typing on a keyboard or tapping your phone isn’t the only way the internet’s data is growing. The Internet of Things (IoT) — a.k.a. everything connected to the web — is constantly sending and receiving information.
“Simply, the Internet of Things is made up of devices — from simple sensors to smartphones and wearables — connected together,” Matthew Evans of techUK told Wired.
Think the chips in appliances and fitness trackers, as well as voice search like Amazon’s Alexa. In 2018, there were 33 million voice-activated devices in circulation with 8 million people using them each month, and ComScore estimates that 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020. The size of the internet just keeps growing and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
Alexa, play “The More You Know.”