Healthcare.gov

After midnight on Tuesday, one by one, government websites winked out. Ruled “inessential,” their number included the Library of CongressNASA, and PandaCam.

But one turned on: Healthcare.Gov. The website, a key component of the Affordable Care Act, guides people through the process of buying health insurance. As commentators have pointed out, the site’s design is clean, humane, and conversational — and because many will use it while purchasing health insurance for their family, it may be the first website to have a non-neglible effect on public debate.

And, as of around 5 p.m. today, 2.8 million people had visited it.

It’s a big number. It’s also hard to figure out the scale of. 49.9 million Americans were uninsured and non-elderly in 2011, according to the Department of Health and Human Services — but, obviously, not all visitors today were American, non-elderly, or uninsured. 

We may get a better sense of the program’s reach through its non-digital numbers, in fact. 81,000 have called the ACA’s toll-free number; some 6,000 have requested live chats, according to a statement from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid.

That 2.8 million number, though, which is surely higher now, nearly an hour later: It gives us a sense of what government (and bureaucracy) look like in 2013. It gives us a sense of the scale of civic information dispersal available through the web. When Medicare launched in 1965, for instance, the U.S. population stood at about 194 million people. Imagine about 1 percent of those people examining the same pamphlet, being guided through the same process, at the same time.