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There are more than 5 billion internet users worldwide

At the publishing of this article (June 2023) there are over 5 billion internet users worldwide, making up 64.6% of the global population. Of this total number, 92.7% are social media users, signifying how social media has become very much synonymous with the internet. Whether we’re doing it intentionally or not, by accessing the internet, we are creators of data. And lots of it. Our capacity for digital storage has increased markedly since the 1990s, and as time has gone on, we haven’t looked back.

Every action we take is creating data. Searching for something on Google, responding to a WhatsApp message, watching a documentary on Netflix. We are all contributing to the creation of data, either actively or passively. Looking at Internet Live Stats puts things in perspective. Every second, there are:

  • 99,000 Google searches
  • Over 3 million emails sent (67% are spam)
  • 89,000 YouTube videos watched
  • 5,000 Skype calls made
  • 9,000 Tweets posted

The World Economic Forums estimates by 2025, 463 exabytes of data will be created each day globally, the equivalent of 212,765,957 DVDs per day. The main concern is, where exactly can we store all this data? Not everyone understands that saving something “in the cloud” requires servers dotted around the globe in warehouses of hard drives piled upon each other in endless rows of connected cables. While its understood that we currently have more than enough storage capacity for the time being, the data we create is growing massively every day and alternative options are being explored such as more efficient data compression, underwater datacenters and even archiving information in DNA molecules.

Female network engineer working at a data center

It may be difficult to imagine, but there was a time when people were uncertain about whether the internet would catch on. Certainly this is a feeling many investors and shareholders would have agreed with after the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s. Scepticism was similarly applied to mobile: Who’d want to use their mobiles to browse the internet!? When Netflix launched its internet streaming service for users to watch films in 2007, a common question was, “Who wants to watch a movie on their laptop?” It was expected that the experience of a cinema or a wide-screen TV was superior. And when mobile apps became a thing, a similar question was asked. Does anyone want to watch films on their tiny little mobile phone? Scepticism of the internet still exists, not in its adoption, but in its next steps and impacts. What is Web3? Is the metaverse dead, something that was touted that the next stage of the internet, or is AI driving the next iteration?

For linguists out there, the internet has been a fascinating case study in the use of existing words and the emergence of new ones. Selfie, rekt, pwned, I’m ded. Our expression has evolved considerably on the internet. Previously, the word “like” was a verb. A person liked someone or something. With the emergence of Facebook and other social media platforms, “like” became a noun. A like is now an object or an item that can be quantified. You can give a like and you can receive one. You can post something and get a thousand likes. One doesn’t search for something, they Google it. And even now, just 6 months after its release, if you need to know something, you can ChatGPT it.

And then there are acronyms that are becoming part of our everyday language. Here’s a rough evolution of the word LOL:

Late 90s – early 2000s: People asking what LOL means.
2002 – 2009: People stop asking what LOL means but don’t use it in actual conversations.
2010 – 2015: A few people actually saying LOL in regular conversations, prompting others to ask, “Did you actually say LOL?”
2016 onwards: People using LOL as a regular word. For example, “I heard a funny joke last night and I LOL’d hard”.

Woman looking at mobile phone

Although internet usage is at an all-time high, penetration is a different story. Norway, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have the highest internet penetration rates in the world with 99% of their respective populations accessing the internet. On the other end of the spectrum is North Korea, with internet penetration of nearly zero percent. With internet access comes development, education and commercial opportunities, and a host of other benefits, which is why investing in ICT access is among the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The objective of increasing internet access also applies to countries that on the surface already have a high number of users. For example, China has the highest number of ‘netizens’ in the world, but its penetration rate is relatively low at 76%.

Ultimately the innovation of the internet has come a long way and has changed the world in unexpected ways. In 1990 only 0.05% of the world population used the internet. At the height of the dot-com boom in 2000, just over 3 million people were logged on, a miniscule figure compared to usage today. A decade later in 2010 giants of the internet such as YouTube, Facebook, Google, Baidu and Tencent had established themselves. Internet usage on mobile phones was growing too. The change was stark. By 2010 approximately 2 billion people, almost a third of the world population, were online. Over the next 6 years from 2010-2016, internet usage would increase by an average of 2.84% each year, culminating in 45.79% of the world population using the internet by 2016. In the years that have followed, we have blasted through half the global population mark and are approaching a new era of global internet access. During this remarkable take-up, the world has changed considerably. But it begs the question, if we’re only at 64.6% at the time of this writing, how will the world change and what can we expect when we reach 70% or 80%?

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