by Thomas Wailgum

When Did a Billion Become Boring?

Oct 23, 2009
CareersEnterprise ApplicationsIT Leadership

'One million'-anything used to be impressive. Now, even 1 billion is blah. Just one example: Number 326 on Forbes' list of the wealthiest Americans is worth just more than one billion. Are we jaded, or have we lost perspective on all those zeros?

If 40 is the new 30 (in terms of age), then 1 billion is the new 1 million.

A million used to mean something. Now? Any time a ‘billion-whatever’ gets tossed around, it fails to shock or awe us. One billion application downloads? Eh. A startup valuation of a billion dollars? Yawn. A company’s billion-dollar quarterly loss? Better luck next time.

Remember when millionaires held such high esteem? Now, if there’s not a billion attached to your net worth, don’t even bother posing for that photo on your yacht. Tiger Woods—a professional golfer—now has career earnings of $1 billion. And he’s 33 years old.

Let’s recall what a billion looks like: 1,000,000,000. That’s a lot of zeros, my friend.

Or is it? A billion just doesn’t seem to have the gravitas or oomph! that it did a while back. Perhaps the irrational exuberance of the dotcom boom and bust has skewed our judgment? Perhaps we’re all numb to gigantic numbers, with that many zeros, that seem hard to fathom?

But just look at these numbers and see if any move you to actually think more about them, or stop and say, “Wow!”:

The valuation of Twitter: $1 billion. That’s a lot of coin for a company still figuring out its business model.

How about downloads: Firefox achieved a billion of those in July 2009. Apple’s App Store logged its one-billionth download after just nine months of being in business.

YouTube delivers a billion videos per day.

Oracle’s most recent quarterly profits (not revenues) were just north of $1 billion—for three months during a global economic recession! (Um…wow?)

On Forbes’ list of the wealthiest Americans, wayyyyy down at number 326 was former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (who’s currently unemployed) with a paltry net worth slightly more than a billion bucks.

By the end of 2008, the global Internet audience surpassed 1 billion total unique visitors, according to comScore data. But on this same digitally interconnected and highly advanced planet, there are still 1 billion inhabitants who are going hungry, according to the United Nations.

A billion of us could be forced from our homes by 2050, due to the effects of climate change on Earth, claims the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Speaking of protecting the Earth, guess how much the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could save by “greening up” its data centers? $1 billion dollars! according to The Green Grid consortium.

So what’s my point? Whether it’s because of inflation or the cost of living, technology’s awesome effect on our daily lives, or our outsized expectations for bigger and better, without a little perspective and occasional appreciation, the numbers that we toss around so casually seem to lose their significance each day.

What’s next: The Top 100 List of Trillionaires?

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