Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Last month Facebook reached an incredible milestone: 1 billion active users. That's one-seventh of the world's population exchanging information with each other.
It's a defining moment, cementing Facebook's global position as a serious social and cultural phenomenon.
Little wonder, then, that Facebook has piqued the interest of scientists, academics and researchers around the world. The new Facebooksphere has become a legitimate field of inquiry for people such as clinical psychologists, social psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, media theorists and even neuroscientists.
Study after study, book after book, now explores Facebook's impact on "real" society, "real" relationships, our mental and emotional well-being and even the future of humankind.
In his book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us, American psychologist Larry D. Rosen links the heavy use of Facebook to (among other things) mood swings in some teenagers.
Similarly, in Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, Stanford University professor of psychiatry Elias Aboujaoude warns of the link between excessive internet/social-media usage and mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and narcissism.
Narcissism, as it happens, in the world of Facebooksphere psychoanalysis is the disorder du jour - studies from universities all over the world have zoomed in on the habits of those Facebook users who post obsessively about everything, analysing their behaviour through the prism of clinical narcissism. In Australia, last year psychology researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology delved into the relationship between Facebook and narcissism and extroversion, as well as shyness and loneliness.
The way friendships are formed and un-formed in the Facebooksphere has also come under the psycho-microscope. Many of us have experienced the sting that comes with being "unfriended" but psychology researchers at Chapman University in California thought it a practice worthy of clinical investigation, exploring the negative emotional and cognitive responses to this most unfriendly phenomenon.
On the social front, sociologists applying their analytical gaze to Facebook worry about its impact on real-world relationships. One of the world's leading thinkers in this area, Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes that the "shallow" interactions we share on social media eat into our time and ability to form and maintain real-world relationships.
As she wrote in her 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, we can all too easily "confuse the scatter-shot postings on Facebook for authentic communication". Basically, that in the Facebooksphere we confuse "friends" for, well, friends.
Australian-born, US-based cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell, employed by tech giant Intel to study how people use technology, worries about the power of Facebook (and other time-consuming online activities we undertake on our ubiquitous mobile devices) to destroy creativity. How? By ensuring that we never have a moment of boredom - or fertile free time just to think - ever again.
Even the field of medicine is delving into the Facebooksphere. Earlier this year, Germany's University of Bonn published a paper arguing the existence of a gene that could be responsible for a clinical addiction to social media and the internet. It's one of many medical studies that seek to pathologise heavy use of the online world.
Going even further are some voices from the world of neuroscience. The most prominent of those is British professor Susan Greenfield, who argues that heavy internet usage (not just Facebook) is altering the structure and function of our brains, which will result in a vastly different (and not nice) type of human in the future. Greenfield's claims, while considered wildly speculative by some, demonstrate that the Facebooksphere is on everyone's mind nowadays. Even neuroscientists.
It's enough to make you delete your account. Now.
Who knows whether these theories will stand the test of time or if they will fade like many of the panicked predictions made about the impact of other media technology such as television and computer games when Facebook was still just a dream in Mark Zuckerberg's head?
What we do know is that we are only at the beginning of Facebook studies. Grab your textbooks, everyone. Class has only just begun.