In August 1962, J.C.R. Licklider of MIT wrote a series of memos detailing an idea he called the Galactic Network. He envisioned a network of computers around the world, interconnected and set up to allow users to access data from any site. As far-fetched as the idea must have sounded to his contemporaries, it's clear now that Licklider foreshadowed one of the most consequential technologies in human history—the internet.
Licklider's idea came to fruition, not in the 1990s, but in 1969, just seven years after he wrote his memos. That year, UCLA was selected as the host site of the first node on ARPANET, a primitive predecessor to the modern internet. ARPANET was the first network to use packet switching instead of circuit switching to enable machine-to-machine communication. Licklider now holds a spot in the Internet Hall of Fame and is hailed as one of the most important and celebrated computer scientists in history.
Fast-forward exactly half a century and the internet impacts nearly every aspect of American life. It's revolutionized how we communicate, learn, share information, watch TV, eat, shop, and consume news and other media. It's changed how we cook, how we read, how we do business, how we bank, and how we complain. The four biggest companies on the S&P 500 are Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook.
Binary code, which represents computer processor instructions and encodes data, consists of only two numbers: 0 and 1. The numbers that tell the tale of how the internet impacts modern American life, however, are far more varied. The size, reach, and influence of the internet can be quantified through numbers that describe just how deeply the invisible but vital connectivity penetrates every aspect of our daily lives.
Here's a look at the numbers that define the many ways the internet impacts American society.
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About 327 million people live in the United States. Of them, 293 million are now internet users, according to a report from Statista. There are 4.4 billion connected people in the world as a whole.
America represents a disproportionate percentage of the world's online community. Although the United States is home to only 4% of the world's population, 10% of global internet users are American, reports the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
America's internet service providers have made huge gains in wiring people's homes for broadband, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2000, just 1% of the adults had home broadband, but just a decade later in 2010, that number jumped to 64%. In the 2010s, however, that progress flattened out, and today, 73% of adults have home broadband—racial minorities, rural residents, the less affluent, and the undereducated are the most underserved groups.
Google is the most popular website in the world, boasting 1.6 billion unique monthly visitors. To put that in perspective, only two other websites claim 10-figure monthly visitors. One is Facebook and the other is YouTube, which is owned by Google.
The name Google has been synonymous with looking things up online since the late 1990s. Today, no rival can come close to competing with the internet search giant. Google owns more than 90% of the search engine market.
Blogs are part of the modern American experience. Statista reports that more than 31 million bloggers churn out the content that America reads, watches, shares, likes, and gripes about in the comments sections.
On April 23, 2005, an 18-second video clip titled "Me at the Zoo" debuted on a new platform that would forever change the way people consumed and delivered media. That platform was YouTube, and today, Pew notes that 73% of the country uses it—that's more than any other social network.
The average person could spend an entire lifetime watching just the amount of video uploaded to YouTube in a single day—literally. YouTube gains 500 hours of new video every minute—that's 82.2 years worth every 24 hours.
Although YouTube is the most popular social network, it doesn't truly qualify as social media in the traditional sense. The true king of social media is still Facebook, which counts more than two out of three Americans among its subscriber base. No other network comes close, with second-place Instagram capturing only 37%.
The 2016 election and the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed just how easily shady players, dishonest brokers, and even foreign agents could infiltrate and influence American discourse and politics. Embroiled in scandal, Facebook revealed the sheer size of the problem was when it took down more than 2 billion fake accounts between January and March of 2019.
Facebook and YouTube are used by comparable percentages of all but the oldest Americans, who tend to use all networks less than the larger population. Snapchat and Instagram, on the other hand, are the realms of the youngest adults. According to Pew, 73% and 75% of 18–24 year olds use Snapchat and Instagram, respectively. No other age group is even close in terms of representation.
A Statista report shows that Americans are projected to buy more than $560 billion worth of physical goods online in 2019, an increase of more than $100 billion over 2017. By 2022, that number is expected to break the $700 billion mark.
Many e-commerce sales are conducted through Amazon, which now boasts 310 million active users and 90 million U.S.-based Prime subscribers. When you count Amazon Marketplace sellers, the world's largest retailer has 353 million products for sale.
Online sales currently account for less than 5% of America's $641 billion grocery market, according to a 2018 study from the Food Marketing Institute conducted by Nielsen. Online grocery shopping, however, is quickly creeping into the mainstream, with none other than Amazon leading the charge. By 2025, internet-based grocery sales are expected to break the 12-figure mark and account for 20% of the total grocery market.
In November 2014, Amazon introduced a product that would revolutionize the way people connected and communicated with their devices. Amazon Echo, known for its "Alexa" personal assistant, ushered in the era of the modern smart speaker. Its arrival compelled Amazon's competitors to unleash a wave of voice-activated, internet-connected smart speakers—today, there are more than 66 million of them in American homes.
Once the stuff of science fiction, the Internet of things (IoT) is now a reality—and the proof is in the numbers. There are now more connected devices than there are human beings on Earth, according to the Internet and Television Association, and by 2020, more than 50 billion connected devices will be communicating with each other and their human masters.
From light bulbs and smoke detectors to deadbolt locks and thermostats, IoT reaches into every corner of the American home and office. According to a report from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 127 former dumb devices are enlightened every second with internet connectivity.
Wearable smart devices like Apple Watches and Fitbits have changed the way people exercise, eat, sleep, and communicate—and none of it would be possible without the Internet. Nearly 40 million American adults own one, according to Statista.
The country's internet service providers hold the keys to the online kingdom. They provide the services, systems, hardware, software, and network access needed to bring computers, tablets, phones, and other connected machines to life. There are at least 2,665 of them in the United States, according to BroadbandNow.
There might be thousands of internet service providers, but not all ISPs are created equal. Comcast now holds the title of most popular ISP in 27 states—more than half the country.
The rise of the internet forced the creation of an entirely new industry—the online security sector. The internet has given rise to a game of digital cops and robbers played out on a grand scale between digital security experts and cybercriminals. Every single day, the good guys block 24,000 malicious attacks launched through web apps alone.
Cybercriminals target corporations, banks, retailers, payment systems, social networks, and any other entity that stores customer data. Their target is the personal information that defines the online life of internet users. Yahoo—and its countless users—became the target of the largest data breach in American history when 3 billion sensitive records were compromised.
Although not as dangerous as data breaches, malware, and cyberattacks, spam is an unwanted yet inescapable part of online life in America. Nearly half of all emails—a full 45%—are now unsolicited spam.
The internet is no longer an amenity for well-heeled kids in wealthy school districts—it's a must-have tool for education in the modern world. A 2016 study by EducationSuperHigherway found that 88% of school districts are now connected—that's nearly 35 million K-12 students who can get online at school.
The internet has revolutionized higher education, as well. The Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics reports that more than 3 million distance learners pursue their college education completely online. Another 3.55 million take at least some online courses.