How much big is better?

I think I know what a small house is. One year my family of 4 lived in a one room house without plumbing. And some of the neighbors lived in smaller houses. We moved every year and sometimes we lived in spacious houses, other times in small apartments. But we always had enough room. (Although as teenagers, my sister and I might have wished for another wall between us sometimes.)

I was informed last week – 10 times no less – that I live in a small house. We have 1300 square feet upstairs and 1300 square feet in our finished basement. It is not a small house. It’s a big house. Yet the person looking at it kept saying it was such a small, cute house.

She was a designer. I concluded that most people in our area must value big. And bigger. In 1950 the average American home was less than 1,000 feet. In 2006 the average house was about the size of our house, 2300 square feet. The dream house must be bigger than that now. When given the choice between remodeling to fit changing needs or just buying a bigger house, most Americans must pick the bigger house. Since we live in a huge house (by my standards), I figured most of her clients must live in enormous houses.

I spend most of my evenings sitting on the hardwood floors in the kitchen playing with the kids and talking to Frank while he cooks. I want a comfier kitchen/dining room, not a bigger house. I want to continue to hang out close to Frank and the kids, not have a more comfortable place elsewhere. (I’ve got that too.) I have not figured out how a bigger house would add to our quality of life at all. (Luckily the designer seems to understand we want a cozy, warm space for us and friends to hang out.)

What flabbergasts me is the new definition of what a “small house” is. I have nothing against big houses. Or enormous houses. I just resent being told my big house is small. But I guess it’s all relative.

Open source feedback (done wrong): “Look, you have food stuck in your teeth!”

At a party, if you notice someone has food stuck in their teeth, you probably wouldn’t go “HEY! You have food stuck in your teeth and it looks GROSS! I hate it. I think you should go brush your teeth right now!”

But we do that all the time in open source.

Someone writes a new blog post or a new piece of code or forgets to post something … and we criticize them in public. Because it’s open source, right? Instead of emailing them we think their blog post is wrong, we leave a blunt, often rude comment. Instead of IMing them and asking if they’ve considered the privacy implications of their change, we write a public blog post that details how wrong their strategy is. Instead of congratulating them on their new product website and emailing them a few suggestions that would make usability better, we write a long critique in a blog post of our own.

When we do this, this public criticism, we change their ability to respond to it. Now they must respond in public, often defensively. If the feedback was private first, it would be easier for them to change quickly and nimbly. (Or maybe they don’t need to change at all. Maybe we missed something.)

There is a time and a place for public critique. But it’s often not the first place the critique should happen if we want to effectively influence projects.

Most effective people on open source projects communicate privately first.

They communicate via private emails, IMs and even public IRC channels, which are less public than web pages and public mailing lists because they aren’t archived.

So the next time you read something and have burning feedback, consider your audience and how you might most effectively drive the change you are looking for.