MARIANNE MADDEN is typical of a new breed of decor enthusiasts: She has never subscribed to a shelter magazine, doesn't buy coffee-table books and considers home and garden tours something from the Eisenhower era. Instead, Madden, 23, gets her fill of design ideas by reviewing decorating projects on blogs such as DesignSponge, Decor8 and Design Milk, where she posts comments on what she sees. She recently judged images of singer Kylie Minogue's house as "too black and white. I would have liked to see more fuchsia, red and cream," and decreed another home's modern bed too "spartan rather than sensual."
But Madden can take as good as she gives. Her own San Diego studio apartment is dutifully documented on her Flickr photo gallery, where it's available for all of the online world to see. And praise. And criticize.
Though getting rated on the Web is nothing new (post your head shot to the website Hot or Not if you dare), uploading images of one's own home is a growing phenomenon for the house proud. These websites and blogs are attracting all manner of design junkies: flea-market fiends as well as aspiring decorators who upload their latest creations for the blogosphere to decide if that breakfast nook is a hit or a miss.
"It was incredibly flattering," says Polly Wilson, who posted 35 photos of her Sherman Oaks home on Apartment Therapy, a site that functions as an online design equivalent of "American Idol."
"We weren't doing it to try to impress people. We just wanted to share how we maximize our space," husband Ben says of the clean-lined, 1,100-square-foot apartment that they share with 5-year-old son Cyrus.
Neither of the Wilsons, both 35, has a Facebook account, so being a Web celebrity for a week was a novelty for Polly, who works in marketing at Goldman Sachs, and Ben, an actor and writer who built much of their modern furniture.
Not that all 67 comments on their Apartment Therapy house tour were high praise.
"White couch. 4.5 year old. Does not compute," posted a user named Juliet.
And amid the "wows" and complimentary questions such as, "What is the name of the gray paint on the bedroom wall?" there also were people such as Patrick, who opined, "I don't love the two velvet tub chairs," and Peggy, who worried that a storage cabinet above Cyrus' bed might not be safe. "I would probably move that," she said in her bit of unsolicited advice.
Although the couple is still amazed at the response, Ben says Patrick's comment did make him reconsider those chairs. "I'm thinking about having those reupholstered."
Gregory Han was a children's furniture designer when he posted pictures of his Silver Lake apartment at www.apartmenttherapy.com, and he later became a managing editor for the site. He says the Southern California audience is generally kinder and gentler than their counterparts in other cities.
"The comments in L.A. are more laid-back compared to New York, where people focus more on the negative," says Han, who oversees the site's weekly house tours as well as its semiannual contests. The response to his own home? Mostly positive, but Han notes "criticism from mostly older, East Coast readers about the bright, young colors."
Scroll through reader responses on most design blogs, and the majority of comments are from the Paula Abdul school of praise. But self-appointed Simon Cowells do lurk.
"It's actually pretty pointless to say everything is beautiful," Madden says. "I try to be constructive and actually start a discussion." Her key issues: being sensitive to the environment, living with pets and children, making the most of a small space, and storage.
In the online world of home design -- where the subjects haven't been meticulously styled, professionally lighted or flat-out staged with outside furniture and decorative accessories, as some magazines do -- it seems there is no design detail too small for criticism.
"Online commentators will scold you for leaving your toilet seat up when photographing your bathroom or dirty dishes in the sink," says Dean Fisher, 25, who documents her Highland Park apartment on her My Little Apartment blog, mylittleapartment.blogspot.com, and frequently comments on other sites. "I'm not going to attack someone by saying, 'Wow, you should really clean off your desk before you take a photo of your office!' because that's mean. I would, however, comment about the same photo, saying, 'The rug you chose for your office is fighting with the wall color and makes the space seem a little hectic.' "
More often than not, micro-design questions -- to tuft or not to tuft a throw pillow, or, are silk flowers ever OK? -- are what generate page after page of responses.
Even some professional designers are finding themselves pulled into the fray.
"Someone didn't like the birds' nest over the doorway," says Kevin Beer, 55, an L.A. designer who posted images online of his two-story, 1922 Spanish Colonial in Hollywood. "But that was the exception. The majority was so incredibly positive. I was really blown away."
So why would a 25-year veteran decorator care what an anonymous person halfway around the world might think about his mix of antiques and Tiki touches?
"Being a designer can be a lonely job, and the fact that these comments from people in Germany, Canada and Brooklyn are coming in is just exciting," he says. "I get validation from clients when I do their house, but it's different when you know hundreds and hundreds of people are seeing what you've been doing."
But why stop at high praise? Joan Grabel and Jon Wolfe are banking on users wanting more than affirmation. With Casagogo.com, a site that has been live for six months but hasn't officially launched, the L.A.-based mother and son say they're aiming to be the Match.com of home design. The concept: Put people together based on shared design taste -- pairing, say, like-minded minimalists.
"There's a correlation between how people live and their personality," says Grabel, whose site allows singles to view and comment on one another's homes. "When you walk into someone's living space, you can tell about them right away, so we're hoping that style and design will become a catalyst for interaction."