May 9, 2023

Is a million a lot?

The cable news turmoil from a couple of weeks ago, and its ongoing media echoes, got me thinking about a bit of an abstract question: is a million a lot?

The answer is, of course, it depends. There’s a popular meme parodying a Doctor Who clip that summarizes the issue. When asked, “Is four a lot?” the Doctor replies, “Depends on the context. Dollars? No. Murders? Yes.”

Tucker Carlson, the most popular host on the most popular cable network, would draw about 3.5 million viewers on his best-watched days. As we examined then, that’s a lot, but not a lot a lot. Across multiple “new” media platforms, there are hundreds of people you’ve never heard of that can regularly reach twice that many pairs of eyeballs on a regular basis.

We often use the word “million” to mean something big – but in an era of inflationary everything, do we need to size up our language as well?

A million dollars

There’s a corner of the internet that absolutely loves to rehash the same money debate over and over again. The instigating question is some variation of “Is a $100,000 salary a lot of money?” Depending on the week, you can swap out the $100k for $250k or $500k. The exact number isn’t that important, and the arguments are always the same.

Perhaps the most frequent spark plug for these debates is the recurring “Money Diaries” feature on Refinery29. These first-person essays alternate between relatively benign spending habits and wild accounts of financial chaos. Some people are still on their parents’ cell phone plan. Others spend $1400 a month in doggy day dare. There’s always something for commenters to latch onto to start the latest cycle of discourse.

While those outlier numbers draw in the voyeuristic clicks, here are the actual ones: the median household income in the US is about $70,000 a year. But the median savings account balance is just $5,300. By these metrics, a million dollars is definitely a lot.

But these debates persist because, for many people, a million dollars doesn’t feel like a lot. One stroke of bad luck and you can end up with a hospital bill that eats up that total in an instant. A million dollars buys you the median apartment in Manhattan – and in many other markets, it means that you either get a pretty nice place or a pretty nice neighborhood, but not both.

A million bucks isn’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, making six figures and having seven figures was shorthand for having it made. (When Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? premiered in August 1999, that previously unheard-of grand prize payout would be about $1.8 million in today’s money.) But today, people that check those boxes frequently don’t feel like that’s the case – while at the same time, those who aspire to those milestones are rightfully perplexed when they hear those gripes.

It’s an emotional debate. It’s a debate made more intense by our failings to create a functional social safety net, by a generation of policymakers allowing the price of education, healthcare, and housing to skyrocket while wages stagnate. It’s a debate I don’t see ending anytime soon.

A million views

Last year, the most watched show on television was NFL Sunday Night Football on NBC, with 18 million viewers. The most watched scripted show was Paramount’s Yellowstone, with over 11 million viewers. Again, big numbers – but even if you added those two numbers together, you’d barely reach the subscriber count of the 100th most popular TikTok account.

It’s important to single out TikTok here. The platform’s design and algorithm have single-handedly inflated the definition of bigness in digital media. In one session of flicking through the app, a user might watch hundreds of videos – compared to binge sessions topping out in the dozens for YouTube or Netflix. Instagram or Facebook would (and sometimes still can) offer sizable view counts, but they were generally less intense forms of engagement.

Never before in history has somebody been able to communicate with as many people as Cristiano Ronaldo (owner of the most-followed Instagram account) can today. For the thousands of years leading up to just a few decades ago, emperors, generals, popes, and revolutionaries could only dream of reaching a tiny fraction of his 638 million followers.

In that vein, you can make a pretty good argument that Mark Zuckerberg is the most powerful person to ever walk the earth. 3.59 billion people are active on at least one of the products made by Meta, the company he founded and effectively single-handedly controls. A million views is a rounding error in his world.

By that measure, some things are really small. The most popular book of 2022 was Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us, which sold 2.7 million copies. (It was an excellent year for Hoover: she actually wrote 8 of the top 25 best-selling books last year.) The most popular magazine was AARP The Magazine, with a circulation of 22.7 million – though the biggest magazine that isn’t a freebie is Better Homes & Gardens, with a circulation of 7.6 million. The Wall Street Journal has the largest daily print run of a newspaper in the United States at just 697,500.

A million views is still a lot, but it’s also a lot more accessible than ever before. That’s the original promise of social media, though that promise is in jeopardy as the social media era begins to wane.

A million users

Just a few years ago, TechCrunch would light up when your app hit a million downloads or your website notched a million users. The seven-digit threshold signaled popular adoption, crossing over from the nerds to the world at large.

Like dollars and views, perception of this milestone has diverged into two paths. On one hand, a million has increasingly seemed like a cakewalk for some platforms. ChatGPT took just five days to hit that metric and another couple of months to hit 100 million users. TikTok hit a billion users two full years faster than the next speediest, WeChat. A larger population, a more connected world, and a global information network that allows for the rapid dissemination of ideas and technologies, all make this type of meteoric rise possible.

On the other hand, maybe you don’t need to reach a million users? A growing trend of “solopreneurs” and bootstrapped founders are making use of high-leverage tools, like ChatGPT itself, to build profitable businesses that don’t need to scale to infinite heights. As more of the stuff we use every day becomes “as-a-service,” charging users on an as-used basis, more businesses can turn a profit at smaller user counts.

Millions and millions

A million is a lot closer to zero than it is to a billion. Though our perception is getting thrown for a loop, as we’re living in an age with a lot more billions than we used to: more billionaires, more billions of users, more billions of impressions. There are even a few trillions in our lives, from corporate market caps to government spending bills.

It’s hard to make sense of it all. A million, in many ways, is still a lot. But across multiple dimensions, it now falls right in the in-between zone. Most of us would be very happy if a genie showed up tomorrow to grant us a million dollars, a million views, or a million users. But today, instead of being the mountaintop, all that does is give us a slightly better view of the landscape above and below.

(Let’s end with a lightning round. A million years? A long time! Roughly four times the entire existence of humans. A million miles? Not that much! The sun is 93X further away than that, and if space carried sound, it would be as loud as a rock concert. You might personally rack up a million miles if you get lucky with a few workhorse Honda Accords. A million-to-one odds? Less rare than you think! One-in-a-million things would happen about nine times a day in NYC alone. Rare things happen all the time in an infinite universe. A million species extinct? Far too many! The stakes of the dangerous game we’re playing with the climate are probably more consequential than you think.)

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just released his first book – Simply Put, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

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