At first glance, asking about the weight of the internet may seem to be as nonsensical as inquiring about the flavor of one of Mozart’s compositions. It isn’t as if the internet is some tangible thing you could bundle up and put on the bathroom scales, is it?
Don’t be too quick to dismiss the question. If there is anything we have learned after seven years of researching articles for Commonplace Fun Facts, it’s pretty hard to find a question that doesn’t turn up something at least mildly interesting.
And, as we have also learned, anything that appears to be a quick answer based upon a “Today I Learned” meme is probably going to be wrong and will require a much more detailed explanation.
If you type the words “How much does the internet weigh?” into a search engine, you’ll get a bunch of results that tell you that it is roughly the equivalent of a strawberry. That sounds really cool, but before you rush off and tell others how smart you are, you should take a closer look at the facts.
The first thing to consider is what we mean by “the internet.” If we are referring to all of the computers around the world that host, process, and receive information, it would be a truly massive thing.
What makes the internet so special is not the computers, however. It is the information that is so readily accessible that is the soul of the World Wide Web.
As we saw in the discussion about USB drives becoming lighter as more information is stored in them, computers convert data into the binary format of ones and zeros. The zeroes are achieved with the negative charge of an electron. Electrons are very tiny but each one has measurable mass.
Suppose you have a 4GB Kindle or similar e-reader. Professor John Kubiatowicz, a computer scientist at the University of California, determined that filling the device would increase its weight by 0.000000000000000001 grams. In case you lost track of the zeroes, that amounts to one-billionth of a billionth of a gram.
Admittedly, even if you are cursed with the upper body strength of a Keebler elf, you are unlikely to get winded very quickly by carrying around that kind of heavy reading. Suppose, however, that you are tasked with carrying around all of the data contained on the internet. How much would that weigh?
First, let’s figure out how much data we’re talking about. As you might imagine, this is a bit tricky. One way to measure it is to consider the number of websites. At any given time, there are an estimated 155 million websites on the internet, give or take — well, a whole bunch. For one thing, you have to define what constitutes a website. Is Facebook one website, or does each person’s Facebook page make up a website?
Another way is to calculate the number of internet servers. Again, this is not exactly a precise science. One estimate places the number of servers at 75 million, but this could vary by as much as a factor of five.
Another problem with determining the size of the internet is that most of it is off limits to the majority of us. The Deep Web consists of server log files, cloud-based data storage, and corporate business sites, all of which are part of the internet, but only accessible with login information.
As if this weren’t complicated enough, an accurate measurement is further hindered by the fact that the internet is always growing. Just how quickly? Remember the old floppy disks that powered the personal computers of the 1980s? Take 2.8 billion of those disks and you have 1 Petabyte. Do that every 14 seconds, and you will be keeping up with the growth of the internet. (For more information about units of computer memory, read this article.)
As of this writing, at 10:20 a.m. GMT, October 3, 2021, the internet is estimated to be 20,423,273 Petabytes, according to Live-Counter.com. According to this article, the internet in 2014 was estimated to be 1 million exabytes. It is estimated to double in size every two years, so obviously the results we give you will be out of date by the time you read it, but that can’t be helped.
Physicist Russell Seitz ran the numbers in 2006 and concluded that the internet was 5 million terabytes (5,000 Petabytes) and that the combined weight of all those electrons added up to about 2 ounces — the size of a strawberry. That was 15 years ago, however, and the internet has really been packing on the pounds since then. It has, in fact, grown by a factor of 4,084.65. If Seitz’s numbers are correct, it would weigh 8,169.3 ounces, or 510.6 pounds (231.6 kg) today.
On the one hand, that’s still a remarkably small amount. You probably can’t carry the collective knowledge of the internet in your pocket today as you could back in 2006. Even so, all of the knowledge of humanity (at least that much that has been digitized) weighs about as much as a cubic meter of snow.
Of course, that’s not the end of the discussion. There is another way to examine the problem.
In 2007, Discover magazine took another look at the subject and measured the internet in terms of “bits.” It concluded that the real issue is not the individual electrons that are transmitted; the important thing is the pattern of bits that the electrons describe.
The article notes, “The electrons or radio waves that are sent directly from your own computer usually don’t get far—a few hundred feet at most—before being digested by another computer. Even when you send packets as light pulses down fiber-optic cables thousands of miles long, repeaters buried every 20 miles or so on the seafloor absorb incoming photons and transmit new photons to the next repeater.”
In short, the physical items — electrons — transmitted through the internet do not go very far. What really matters for internet weight discussion is the bit pattern the represents each packet. As the article explains, “One way to understand it is to imagine that I have a car that I want you to have. You, oddly enough, live on an island that is completely unreachable by sea or air, so I can’t deliver my car by shipping it to you directly. Fortunately for us, your island happens to be equipped with a state-of-the-art workshop and a huge supply of car parts. So to send the car to you, I examine it in detail and write down a set of plans, which I fax to you. You then assemble the car from the plans. Presto! You have a new car to drive around your island, one that is definitely real and (here we go) that can be physically weighed.”
Using this methodology, Discover measured the weight of a “bit” which consists of 40,000 electrons stored in a capacitor on a chip. The average 8-bit byte only contains four “1” bits (and four “0” bits). It then determined that the size of the internet (estimated at that time to be 40 Petabytes) weighed a paltry 0.2 millionths of an ounce. Assuming the size of the internet doubles every two years, it would, today, tip the scales at 25.6 millionths of an ounce — still considerably lighter than a strawberry and manageable by even the weakest among us.
Keep in mind that it will keep growing. Also, keep in mind that technology is always improving the way data is converted and relayed, so the internet could become much more weight-conscious in the years to come.
So how much does the internet weigh? At the end of the day, we have firmly concluded that it weighs somewhere between 25.6 millionths of an ounce and 510.6 pounds. Admittedly, that’s a margin of error that is acceptable only to those who work on the federal government’s budget, but we don’t want to add to the internet’s weight problem by adding even more analysis to the matter under debate.
Categories: Measurements, Physics, Science, Technology
Leave a Reply