What if Facebook isn't the intrusive, all-seeing eye that we fear? What if it isn't just a place where workers waste time and young people post regrettable pictures of themselves?
What if it is not just a stage for narcissists who think everything they say is funny and everything they do is important? What if isn't just a place where heartless teens wound each other?
What if Facebook is an Internet bar where everybody knows your name, where you can go to feel better after a bad day?
A Cornell University study suggests just that. Facebook is a place where people go to find reassurance that they are worth caring about.
"The conventional wisdom is that Facebook use is merely a time sink and leads to an assortment of negative consequences," said Jeff Hancock, Cornell professor of communication and computer and information science.
"But our research shows that it can be a psychologically meaningful activity that supplies a sense of well-being at a relatively deep level."
He is co-author of the study with Catalina Toma, now an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It was published in the March edition of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The researchers asked 88 undergraduates to give a brief speech. They were then given time to go onto Facebook and visit their profile or someone else's. After a few minutes, the students were given negative feedback about their speeches and asked to respond to the criticism.
Those who had visited their own profiles were less defensive about the criticism than those who had not.
Next, students were given either negative or positive feedback about their speeches and then given time to browse social network sites of any kind. Those who received negative feedback were more likely to visit their Facebook profiles than those who received praise.
In fact, Mr. Hancock was surprised to learn that the students felt more loved and worthy after visiting their Facebook profiles than after doing traditional self-affirmation exercises, such as making a list of what is meaningful to them.
There is something in our Facebook profiles that makes us feel better about ourselves, the researchers concluded. Whether it is the self-selection of the community (after all, we don't "enemy" people) or the best-foot-forward way we present ourselves, Facebook appears to have a healing effect on our bruised egos.
"When you are feeling bad, one place you might go is Facebook because that's where your family and friends are," Mr. Hancock said in a telephone interview.
Relationships with family and friends are an important predictor of health and well-being. We are more likely not to smoke, to eat better, to study harder, to make better choices when we are connected to support systems. "And Facebook is where people go to be with each other," Mr. Hancock said.
Facebook has more than a billion users, and it isn't just for kids. About half of Americans over 50 belonged to the social media site in 2010, a 100 percent increase from previous year, according to a Pew Research Center report. The percentage is almost certainly higher now.
"We want to hang around people we like and who like us," said Mr. Hancock. "People make a big deal about Lincoln and his team of rivals, but we typically don't surround ourselves with people who don't think like us. It is difficult and it is hard work." So it makes sense that Facebook should be a happy place for us, right?
And yet it doesn't have that reputation. Users say they feel jealous or sad when they read of a braggart's accomplishment. There is an unsettling uncertainty about who is listening when we talk. We find out the social or political views of friends or family that were unknown to us, and we are hurt or angry. And the potential for painful gossip is always there.
"Facebook is like the playground," Mr. Hancock said. "Certainly the rules on Facebook, just like the playground, need to be sorted out."
"As Facebook, or social media sites like Facebook, take on more and more aspects of our life, it brings in the good and the bad. But anything that has to do with humans has that potential."
I like Facebook, and I thought it was because it was a quick and easy way to keep up with friends and family in the midst of my busy life, and a way to share my work (because page views matter in my business now).
But now I realize Facebook is also where all my friends hang out — the perfect place to go after a hard day.
Susan Reimer's columns appear on Monday and Thursday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.