How Heavy Is the Internet?

A recent piece in Discover Magazine sets out to weigh the Internet.

How heavy is information? Most of us know that computers represent all types of information–e-mails, documents, video clips, Web pages, everything–as streams of binary digits, 1s and 0s. These digits are mathematical entities, but they are also tangible ones: They are embodied and manipulated as voltages in electronic circuits. Therefore, every bit of data must have some mass, albeit minuscule. This prompted DISCOVER to ask the question: How much would all the data sent through the Internet on an average day weigh?

Okay Slaw readers. Write down now what you think the weight of the entire Internet traffic might be? A mountain? A car? A brick? A feather? Heavier than all of that? Lighter than all of that? I’ll give the answer after the picture at the foot of the page.

The physical objects that move through the Internet never go very far. What really goes the distance—what carries the weight, for our purposes—is the bit pattern that represents each packet, which gets continually rebuilt in the electronic memory of system after system as information traverses the network.

If we can work out the weight of the bits associated with a piece of information when it is assembled in a computer’s memory, we are halfway to figuring out the weight of the Internet.

75 percent of all traffic on the Internet is due to file sharing, with 59 percent of that file sharing attributed to people swapping video files. Music tracks account for 33 percent of the file-sharing traffic. E-mail, it turns out, accounts for just 9 percent of the total traffic. And that total is… a staggering 40 petabytes, or 40 x 1015 bytes: a 4 followed by 16 zeros.

Every shade and aspect of human life encoded as 1s and 0s. Internet
Taken together, everything that moves across the Internet in a single day weighs roughly the same as the smallest possible sand grain, one measuring just two-­thousandths of an inch across.


  1. I was close. I said 6lbs. :-)

  2. Somebody might as well be the first to recall what a late 1960s (perhas still a remote Vancouver Island) answer would have been: “heavy, man”.

    No Hollies jokes permitted, please.

  3. I don’t even know how to begin relating this to conservation of mass. Is this a case of creating matter? What will happen as we approach infinity? Will we have converted all mass into packets of information? If so, what will we stand on; alternatively, if we are creating mass, will we change the orbit of earth?

    and to think we’ve been wasting our time worrying about global warming…

  4. Esse est percipi – Bishop George Berkeley, or to put it in a recognizable way “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

    Are my cells made of 1’s and 0’s? Does the Internet create or defy philosophy? Is it the mass of the Internet that matters or the weight of change?

  5. I would say the internet weighs as much as an original trs-80 or an apple II – seems kind of fitting.

    Speaking from someone who grew up in a relatively remote part of “still remote” Vancouver Island in the 60’s, I don’t remember hearing “heavy, man” ; however, “cool” “cool dude” or “cool man” were common utterances. Who are the “Hollies”? Were they, like, Valdy’s opening band?

  6. The internet? It ain’t heavy, it’s my metier.

  7. Who were the Hollies? Sigh.

    Whence came Nash of Crosby Stills & Nash fame.

    The high tenor part of the CS&N harmonies.

    Whence came, “Bus Stop”, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, “King Midas in Reverse”, “The Air That I Breathe” and a host of unforgettable British invasion tunes. Now, if I could only remember them.

    Valdy never got over the remarkable guitar lick that ended the charted version of “Play Me A Rock & Roll Song”.

  8. Since we’re (OK, I’m) on the topic of Valdy and Vancouver Island, and it’s Friday


    “If I play you a rock & roll song
    It wouldn’t be fair
    ‘Cause my head isn’t there
    So I’ll leave you to your rock & roll songs
    And make my way back to the country”

    Then what should have been an iconic guitar riff kicks in. Out of the blue.

    It’s like the Carpenter’s “Say Goodbye To Love” – a sweet, mellow (60’s talk) tune, ended by a hard-edged guitar riff that fits perfectly but would never have worked as the standard guitar-solo bridge that standard pop-rock tunes had then.