Facebook: 500 million ways to say 'I love you'

This just out: Scientists have discovered the secret of Facebook's success, and it's love, sweet love.

According to a recent Fast Company article by Adam Penenberg, who underwent testing by Claremount Graduate University researcher Paul J. Zak (known around campus as "Dr. Love"), your brain gives off a great big spurt of oxytocin, aka "the cuddle chemical," whenever you make a social media connection like updating your status or accepting a friend request.

(Unless you're Rush Limbaugh, in which you get a nice spurt of oxycontin, aka "hillbilly heroin").

[ See also: Should Facebook charge for privacy? ]

Personally, I have never felt like hugging anyone after using Facebook, though I definitely felt the love when Heather Locklear accepted my friend request (TJ Hooker, sigh). And that, more than any other thing, may be the reason Facebook is now so friggin' huge. I mean the cuddle chemical bit, not Heather.

Remember when America Online AOL Aol. was the big kid on the block with 33 million members?  This week Facebook will announce its 500 millionth member. Let that number sink in for a minute: 500 million.

That means better than one out of four Internet users, worldwide, has a Facebook account. If Facebook were its own country, it would rank third in population, behind India but well ahead of the US. If it were its own religion, it would outnumber Judaism, Shamanism, Scientology, Atheism, Animism, Zoroastrianism, and the Wicca, combined.

Also: if Facebook were its own religion, it would be ruled by a sweaty 26 year old pope wearing a hoody. I may have nightmares just thinking about that.

To celebrate, the network will be rolling out "Facebook Stories," what I fear will be obnoxiously heartwarming tales of how people were reunited with their long lost kittens via Facebook. Or maybe how they hooked up with their old high school flame after 30 years, while their spouses were busy flirting with that neighbor who moved away five years ago.

Despite my usual cranky attitude toward just about everything, I have to admit I appreciate Facebook. I think it and other social networks occupy a unique niche in modern history.

For example: I recently made a status update and got comments from three ex girlfriends, all from different eras of my life, none of whom had ever met. It was like that line from Paul Simon's "Kodachome" ("if you took all the girls I knew when I was single/and brought them all together for one night..."). Facebook is the one place in my life where all of my disparate lives -- family and friends, personal and professional, high school and college, west coast and east coast, random acquaintances and Florida supermodels -- intermingle, for good or ill.

Unless you were born in a small town and never left, it's something most people don't experience any more. For many of us Facebook has become that small town, even if its residents live thousands of miles apart.

Still, the whole love connection bit is worrisome. Because you know if there's a way to exploit that feeling to sell you something, Facebook's advertisers will find it. So beware those warm fuzzies. It might be true love, but it's more likely just RockYou or Zynga trying to get into your pants.

When not riding a nice oxytocin buzz, ITworld's TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan shares the crankiness on eSarcasm ("Geek Humor Gone Wild") and on Twitter: @Tynan_on_tech.

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