There's a tendency today to characterize everything into clear-cut divisions. Rich or poor. Black or white. New or used. (In the world of journalism, it's print or digital). So it sometimes seems with Facebook, either the "can't live without it" tool of the modern age or a gigantic waste of time, depending on your perspective.

As the social-networking site has grown, soaring past 500 million members, it has entered the everyday lexicon as well, a status aided by a popular movie "The Social Network" earlier this year, and the selection just last week of company founder Mark Zuckerberg as Time magazine's Man of the Year.

Whether you are an avid status updater or someone who has never seen Facebook, its reach is undeniable. But it is also possible that you are in the middle of those two camps, occasionally checking the site and using it to keep up with family and friends but not feeling the need to tell everyone where you just ate lunch.

For us at The Press Democrat, as we have created a burgeoning family of different websites, we recognize the functionality and engagement that Facebook provides and have sought to incorporate it into many of our digital platforms. On all of our sites, readers can either express their "like" of specific stories or share them with their Facebook friends, a move that ends up spreading our content exponentially as friends of friends pile on and pass along links and comments.

On Facebook pages that are operated by The Press Democrat and our related publications, whether food (Bite Club), moms (Santa Rosa Mom), shopping (Shop SoCo) or numerous other topic areas, it's common to see robust conversations happening among our Facebook friends. Many of these commenters don't know one another but are able to join into a single conversation by virtue of the shared technological platform.

Facebook, intended as a way to stay connected with your own network of friends and family, is also letting people connect with others in the community. Sometimes, these new connections become new friends, a phenomenon we see frequently in cyberspace today.

It's no secret that news websites, including some of ours, have struggled with how to encourage open and easy, yet inoffensive and civil, discussion by readers. We've taken a multipronged approach:

1. Creating specialty websites around areas such as politics (Watch Sonoma County), community news (Town Hub), and prep sports (PD Preps) where comments are moderated, meaning someone reviews them before they are published online;

2. Offering more than 85 blogs on different topics, also with moderated comments;

3. Separating those people who are intent on yelling crude remarks at one another into one sequestered and clearly labeled section of our website.

The physical process of reviewing comments, something that is done virtually around the clock on several of our websites, has required a resource investment, but it has allowed people to participate in dialogues with their neighbors locally or around the world about topics of shared interest. I believe it's a worthwhile investment as the diversity and feedback often improves our news coverage, and it creates often-rich threads of conversation.

Facebook has been a positive part of this commenting solution for us, as people who already use that site for banter on the web can now use that same functionality on many of our websites too. It has also made the process of commenting far less anonymous, which is a very good development for those who welcome civil exchanges.

Facebook and other Internet programs (Twitter, et al.) designed around sharing links and content may be relatively new in your world, but they are essentially no different from the word-of-mouth and over-the-backyard-fence exchanges that have been with us for generations.

Sure, information spreads quickly and across time zones and continents in the time it takes you to click a button on your computer screen, but the premise of you sharing news that matters to you with people you know hasn't changed.

What does the growth of these programs mean for local news providers such as The Press Democrat? Every crystal ball I've seen has generally been cloudy (or wrong), but we do know definitively that more people -- including more people in Sonoma County -- read, shared and saved our stories and photos in 2010 than ever before, whether in our print newspaper, our electronic edition or our many digital platforms. And that number will assuredly continue to grow as more people embrace social-networking tools and look for opportunities to have more connections in their lives.

Greg Retsinas is Interactive Editor for The Press Democrat.