The Pee-Wee Herman Rule

by Jeff Atwood

on November 29, 2010

I recently had a long discussion on gaming meta regarding "Help me remember this game" questions. I'll spare you all the gory details; my general conclusion was this:

If we get an excellent user who asks a good, thoughtful [game] identification question and sticks around in our community to participate, then it's worth allowing it in those rare cases as a high quality "getting to know you" fun question.

This reminded me of a conversation I once had on Server Fault Chat about mod rewrite questions. This is a true gray area in our network. It's tricky, because any given URL rewriting question could legitimately be on topic for multiple sites, each with a different core audience:

I don't think a black and white "all URL rewriting questions belong on {site}" ruling would be helpful in these gray areas. What matters most is the context of the question. You need to use your judgment to look at the bigger picture around the question: is this person a system administrator? a webmaster? a programmer? Even the 'same' URL rewriting question can have different solutions depending on which audience it's being presented to.

That's why I recommend considering these gray area questions in the context of the user. Does this user belong here on this site with us? Or is it the guy in the nerdy suit who just walked into the biker bar?

[Pee-Wee Herman walks into a noisy, rowdy, crowded biker bar. He puts a coin in the pay phone and begins dialing.]

Pee-Wee: What? I'm sorry, operator. I can't hear you. [turns to the bikers, yelling in exaggerated fashion] Shhh! I'm trying to use the phone!

[The bikers all grow quiet and circle around Pee-Wee at the pay phone. The lead biker hangs up the phone.]

Biker: Did anybody tell you that this is the private club of the Satan's Helpers?

Pee-Wee: Nobody hipped me to that, dude!

Biker: It's off-limits!

Pee-Wee: Oh. Well, my mistake. Ha ha! Guess I'll be on my way, then! Ha ha!

[Pee-Wee tries to innocently exit, pushing his way gently outward against the tightly grouped circle of bikers surrounding him.]

Pee-Wee: Excuse me! Excuse me. Ha ha! Excuse me! Excuse me.

(There's no way I can do this brilliant scene justice in text, so you should watch the clip on YouTube. This is of course from the timeless movie Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.)

Anyway, my point is this: when you have to make judgment calls about questions in the gray area of mildly off-topic -- apply the Pee-Wee Herman Rule!

  1. If you have reason to believe, based on the context, quality, and content of the question, that this user could potentially be a positive contributor to your community -- I'd be inclined to let their question stay.

  2. If you have reason to believe, based on the context, quality, and content of the question, that this user would not be a positive contributor to your community -- I'd be inclined to close the question, or migrate it somewhere else where they'd fit in better.

This is not meant to be an exclusionary rule. It's more of a general measurement of how committed new users are to at least trying to fit in to the community they just walked in to. As Pee-Wee proved, being the nerdy guy in the biker bar can work -- so long as you're willing to dance the Tequila song with us.