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As the web gets older and bigger the numbers in a lot of counters will tend to increase more and more.
I'm very curious about the implications in usability and user experience:

Are these big numbers usable and understandable? can you read them and get a sense of the meaning at a glance? are there any studies about this?

Youtube views count:
Gangnam Style - Views counter
Facebook Likes count:
CocaCola Facebook Likes counter

From which point on they become completely unusable? What I mean with this question is this:

Gangnam Style reaches one quintillion views

On the other hand, designers have tried to solve the space/size problems that stem from this by using abbreviated versions of the numbers. Do users understand the abbreviated versions, ie. "1k Likes" (in terms of math understanding and language differences)?

enter image description here
Abbreviated version

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In the case of youtube I feel that the numbers still work. I don't immediately see that the video has about 1.4 quintillion views, but that's not the goal anyways. What is important is that I see that the video has lots of views, and the long number communicates that perfectly. – Jannis Froese Mar 1 '13 at 16:43

There's a lot of research about how people understand numbers. In general, you can group these questions under the concept of numeracy (that is, the human ability to define and apply simple numerical concepts; it's essentially literacy for numbers).

Language has a profound effect on numeracy. For example, research shows that there are some cultures whose counting is limited to "one, two, three, many". (Those of you who have read some of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett will recognize this as how trolls count.) These cultures have a difficult time understanding the difference between, say, 20 and 30, let alone numbers as large as the counters illustrated above. If you'd really like to learn more about this topic, "Core systems of number" by Lisa Feigenson et al is a fascinating discussion.

Science and math teachers can come up with many examples of how they teach children to understand large numbers. A web search for "understanding large numbers" will reveal many different resources for children across grade levels for understanding this concept. There is also research here about how understanding large numbers impacts how students understand key scientific concepts; for example, Students' Understanding of Large Numbers as a Key Factor in Their Understanding of Geologic Time addresses this for one example of large numbers. Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos is an excellent overview of much of the research regarding numeracy, and how innumeracy impacts individuals and society.

Much of the research about numeracy makes the point that humans are generally good at understanding the difference between relatively small numbers, and that we're also generally good at creating and understanding approximations of numerical magnitude. To answer the question about whether these counters are usable, I think we have to figure out whether the exact count is meaningful, or whether a simple understanding of the magnitude of a number (or, perhaps, the understanding of the difference in magnitude between two large numbers) is meaningful. In the YouTube case, I think that glancing at that number and thinking, "wow, that's a lot of views" is sufficiently usable. As a user, I'm unlikely to care whether the video has been viewed 1,121,289 or 1,122,289 times, because that difference of 1000 views isn't important. The magnitude of number of views is the important piece of information that's being conveyed.

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+1 for research -- great answer. I look forward to reading the Core System of Number paper you linked. May I ask where/how you found it? – Charles Wesley Mar 1 '13 at 21:16
It was a paper that I read during my math undergrad. :) – nadyne Mar 2 '13 at 17:49

Anyone that has gone to school in a country that uses metric units should at least have an understanding of the basics like:
k = 1 thousand M = 1 million

Any technical person should know the SI units prifixes

Anyone that knows how to use a computer should be familiar with the terms kb, Mb, Gb, and Tb, so you should be safe into the trillions at least.

The problem is that when you get to a billion, as G = billion isn't what most (English speaking) people would expect.

In general more sites (such as this one) are starting to use the SI unit prefixes, and so people should become accustomed to them by the time Gangham Style reaches 143,434,987,549,482,874 views.

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By the time Gangnam Style reaches 10,265,098,126,530,126,501,348 views, your problem will be more with the integer data format used to store the data rather than the display size. Also, the world will likely have ended by then. – Joe Z. Mar 1 '13 at 13:36
I don't feel confident with some of the assertions that you made: 1) the first assertion about understanding that 1k is 1 thousand, that's probably true in "first world" countries, I'm not sure in Latin America, for example, we can assume that. 3) The third assertion "anyone should be familiar with "kb, Mb, Gb, and Tb" for example check this…. – Marcos Ciarrocchi Mar 1 '13 at 15:21
@MarcosCiarrocchi I said that anyone that has been to school in a country that uses a metric system. Learning that 1000g = 1kg is taught in about grade 5 in Africa. The basic units are part of basic science education in primary school. – JohnGB Mar 1 '13 at 15:48

Everything online is measured. Some of these figures are presented to the public with one purpose only: marketing. It's a way to communicate a message of popularity. Often these figures are measured as clicks, which from a Web Analytics point of view is wrong.

Clicks, or in your first example, views of PSYs' increadably famous youtube-movie about his neighbourhood Gangnam in Seoul, South Korea, is an example of bad measurement. We can't tell if there are 1,3 billion users showing the movie once, or 13 million users showing the video 100 times each. It just shows how many times the video have been played.

As such the measurement can be tampered with, as you can have several bots hitting the web site every second just to show a high number of views. As such it is not very useful, since it's a not very accurate figure - but from a casual viewpoint it's quite fun without any scientific value.

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Would whoever downvoted this please explain why. – JohnGB Mar 1 '13 at 15:50
Haven't voted it down, but in my view this "answer" does not contribute anything to the problem but instead talks about a totally different problem. A view counter was just an example, the original question is equally directed a like counts or user counts. Or, for that matter gmails ever increasing storage counter. This answer deals with web analytics and criticizing youtube (btw, youtube uses algorithms and manual review to prevent tampering) – Jannis Froese Mar 1 '13 at 16:24
I didn't downvote it, but I would for the following reasons: * "Everything online is measured" is demonstrably false. * It doesn't answer the questions being posed, which is whether large numbers are usable and understandable, and whether some common ways of presenting long numbers in a shorter format (eg, 1k == 1000) is understandable. * The points about the potential for bad measurements are orthogonal to the question at hand. – nadyne Mar 1 '13 at 20:38
I might have misinterpreted the question completely while reading it. And I admit I took another angle of the matter rather than what k and m stands for. I answered Are counters usable stated in the header and are referring to Googles web Analytics evangelist Avanish Kausik and his book Web Analytics 2.0. Coming from an IA background I think the understanding begins in what the number represents, and if that number itself is usable. Not entirely off, I think, that's why I'm keeping my answer. – Benny Skogberg Mar 2 '13 at 6:57

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