23

I've had to deal with users who sometimes exhibit some of the qualities of a help vampire on chat, some of which are unique to Stack Exchange.

They barge in and ask questions. Sometimes they randomly ping people demanding answers. Chat's a place they figure they can get answers right now.

Sometimes it's folks who are worried their question won't be well received - but are not really willing to ask even when told "it'll be fine", and sometimes are focused on the reputation hit.

They're often disruptive, smothering current conversation like kudzu, and sometimes resulting in a certain level of unhappiness or distaste.

While some folks are regulars others pretty much pop in, start asking questions and don't seem to be aware of any other conversation going on. They sometimes even badger folks when other things are happening. It's a bit difficult to hold a conversation for many due to this.

I suppose it's a well known problem, discussed a lot on many metas. There's a 'classic' work on help vampires, which is often referenced. It has serious issues that kind of make it a little less useful as something I'd link seriously.

I'm not really a fan since the way that it's written seems to be a work of humour. It's pretty darned funny, slightly sarcastic, and... not very useful. There's a few other issues with it that are irrelevant in this context but on the whole, there's a lot of it that doesn't lend itself to sober serious intervention.

I've always felt that moderation is about the actions and behaviours rather than the person. A label like "Help Vampire" is easy. It demonises the person, is a pejorative, and gives us no details about the problem.

I've tried many approaches so far - letting people know the behaviour in question isn't fine - and that they should ask the questions in the right place (which sometimes works). Sometimes we get the reply "But I'll get downvoted". Occasionally we even point out it's disruptive.

I primarily talk about chat here - there are very robust ways to deal with folks with similar behaviour on the main site, and the main site is for questions, but how do we deal with folks who absolutely need an answer right now and are going to get a little in your face about it, or feel they have a right to your time and energy?

More importantly - How do we talk to someone we feel has these problems and what would be helpful, serious references when talking about these issues?

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    If only there was a site where one could ask a question like this and get ideas for alternate approaches from people who are specifically interested in Inter-Personal Skills. It seems like this would be a good fit for such a site... – Ward Sep 19 '18 at 6:34
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    Well, true and I almost considered it, but there's a few SE specific things. There's also the approach we take in dealing with it and what we call it. I don't, in principle agree with telling folks they can't use it, but here, I have an issue with the term in a situation I often deal with. – Journeyman Geek Sep 19 '18 at 6:38
  • So, for answering this... are you working as a regular user, Room Owner or moderator here? (Just to have an idea of the kind of tools you could/should use) – Tinkeringbell Sep 19 '18 at 9:59
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    Well, my personal philosophy of moderation kinda indicates... all three. – Journeyman Geek Sep 19 '18 at 10:03
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    Ignore them. Early and often. It's VERY easy to get snappy with someone who repeatedly pings you with questions; continuing to answer them or reply will simply result in more most of the time. Over in JS chat, i use the !!afk bot command to exit such conversations cleanly. Unfortunately that's not available everywhere – Kevin B Sep 19 '18 at 15:24
  • Ping a RO to suspend them for a while? 3000 years seems to be popular:) – Martin James Sep 19 '18 at 17:45
  • @MartinJames ROs can't suspend anyone. – Catija Sep 19 '18 at 21:36
  • At least in the Lounge, if a help-vampire shows up and gets impatient, we'll tell them that if someone is interested they will answer. But nobody is interested and if they continue to annoy or disrupt the room, we'll kick them. There have been a few times where it's led to repeated kicks up to the 30 min. mark. But those are rare. – Mysticial Sep 19 '18 at 21:42
11

Well, I'm not a mod but whenever I see this behaviour from non-well-established users¹ in chat I go through the following steps:

  • Mmmh, interesting issue. Do you have a link to the question here on the site?
    That stops 50% from asking any further questions (except every now and then a "Do I have to?" and "Yes...")
  • If they continue asking questions:
    Well, the question you're asking is a bit unclear, so think about your problem, start typing a question and don't forget to add all tags that are related to your question and then come back here and post the link to your question in chat.
    Most of the time (90%) the answer is "Oh? Is that how it works?" and "Yes..."
  • If they continue their disruptive behaviour, I point out that a conversation about another topic is going on and if they want interactive chat help, they should come back in an hour or so with a link to their question so we can concentrate on their issue and help them more pointedly because right now, it's not going to happen!
    So far, when coming to this step the only answer I've had is: "Oh, OK, I'll go post a question..."

Note¹: Well-established users are users:
* You do a o/ to when you see their avatar fly into the room...
* That have asked 10 questions on another site and have answered 1000
* That have more rep than me
* Mods (any mod is a chat mod and they can ban you from chat!) ;-)

Note²: I like the idea of helping them formulate a question using pastebin.

  • "Well-established users are users you do a o/ ..." Aren't these called regulars? – πάντα ῥεῖ Sep 19 '18 at 21:38
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    > "Mods (any mod is a chat mod and they can ban you from chat!) ;-)" Not that we would, of course, but a good observation nonetheless. :P (I'm a mod on Ask Ubuntu) – Thomas Ward Sep 20 '18 at 18:52
  • :D :D :D Pic of moderator tool – Fabby Sep 20 '18 at 19:07
9

I have a good friend who works in construction, doing carpentry on a crew that handles everything from framing to precise paneling & trim work. He's been doing this sort of work in earnest for a couple of years now, after years of trying various professions.

The first couple of months, I'd talk to him and he'd be tired... But excited. There was so much to learn, and he soaked it up like a sponge; no one really had the time or patience to spend a lot of time teaching, but he'd pay attention, watch and listen carefully, and every week he'd have a pile of new skills to excitedly talk about or demonstrate. And as his skills improved, his responsibilities and pay increased as well.

About a year ago, his attitude changed noticeably; more and more of his time was spent helping or assigning work to junior members of the crew, and with that came responsibility for their work as well as his own. There's a lot of turnover, and a lot of new folks signing on weren't particularly interested in doing the work or learning the skills... So he was spending more and more of his time barking out orders and correcting careless mistakes. At the end of the day, the boss would send him home with the blueprints for the next job, which he'd be expected to read by the next morning to apply the next day. And of course, none of this came with a commensurate increase in authority or pay: he didn't get overtime for studying, nor the ability to hire the workers needed or fire the deadwood.

He was burning out. The stories he told now were of bitter arguments with the boss or savage put-downs laid on the new guys; the profession he'd held such hope for had consumed his entire life, leaving no time for hobbies or personal relationships or even sleep.

Drained and angry

Oh, you were a vampire
And now I am nothing at all

--Concrete Blonde, "Bloodletting"

You got some really good advice here from folks on how to better interact with persistently needy folks. I don't have anything to add to the wealth of tools that Tink & Fabby & Tim have given you... Other than this:

Place the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping small children or others who may need your assistance.

It doesn't matter how many tools you have at your disposal, if you're tired and frustrated then you'll use them poorly and find that you've only become that much more weary. We don't call folks "vampires" because of how hard they are to teach; we do so because of the effects such behavior has on ourselves.

And that... Says a lot more about us than it does about the monsters we would strive to reform.

My friend found himself in a situation that I know only too well, from my own experience and that of countless others I've commiserated with over the years. A once-joyful task had become a nightmare, and his joy in sharing knowledge had soured into bitterness at others' unwillingness to learn. If you too ever find yourself in this situation or think you might be headed there, then let me reassure you:

It doesn't get better on its own

There is no relief to be found in staking vampires; no respite from the struggle when one learns or moves on. This is where the metaphor truly breaks down: there is no vampire king whose destruction will put a swift end to his followers; more will always follow. If we need a metaphor, I would recommend this instead...

the asian longhorn tick Source: CDC / James Gathany, via Ars Technica: "the ticks can attack en masse and drain young animals of blood so quickly that they die—an execution method called exsanguination."

But... We don't really need a metaphor; a transfusion, maybe. If you're at the point where you're nominally trying to help but in practice reaching for the bug-spray or holy water, you should be concerned first with your own health. And neither ticks nor vampires nor well-intentioned learners will save you if you're not taking care of yourself.

My friend left the crew he was on, and joined one with a boss who, instead of expecting him to spend his own time on work, taught him how to manage his time on the site more effectively. The last time we spoke he was back to talking about what he was learning, and showed me pictures of wildlife he'd captured in his time away from work. There was a smile on his face... And some color, too.

8

We've had this problem in quite a few of the Stack Overflow regular rooms for years. PHP in particular tends to draw folks that want lots of fast answers or help figuring out what they should be asking in the first place. That's an important distinction because the two often happen at once.

My guidance is based on my experience as a long-term user in some of the more notorious tags that draw this (C, PHP, PHP Frameworks, Server stuff, etc). Take parts of it, all of it, mix it in with other advice given here (most of it's great!), form something that works for the culture of your room and your site.

I'll begin at the point where you strongly suspect that someone has developed an unhealthy dependency, or a pattern of not recognizing that they're just asking too much from folks in a chatroom. This is kind of key, because the first and last step might just be helping them recognize this. They might not realize that they're imposing.

You're asking a lot of questions here. We're happy to help, but we have a Q&A site just for questions, and your problem is dominating the conversation - we'd like to get back to what we were talking about. Maybe you could ask on the main site and someone can answer when they get a moment?

That could be it, occasionally you'll get "ah, sorry, okay" and that's it. What's important is there's no accusation being made (even though terms) so it won't escalate needlessly.

If more is needed, you can try teaching the person how to fish. You're of course under no obligation whatsoever, but you could go as far as saying:

If you're nervous about asking, maybe you could write your question in pastebin and give us the link, and we could give you some pointers on how to maximize your chances of getting the answers you need for this and future needs?

And then offer whatever suggestions you have, maybe jump in and edit to help out. But then set some clear limits and make sure the person realizes what just happened:

You learned something new today about getting help, don't worry, like anything else this is something you get better at doing over time. Please don't forget to pass it on as you get experience and help others just starting out! We'd love it if you stay and hang out with us, but remember that most questions should be asked on the site.

... drop their expectations of continued lessons low. They've got the rod, they know where the fish are, it's okay to occasionally ask for pointers, but it's their journey now.

That's the best outcome. Those that simply will not take the less-than-subtle hints need less-than-less-than-subtle warnings.

We've helped all we can, it's up to you, if you continue to ping people and flood the room with this, you'll get ignored, kicked, or possibly suspended.

... and if it continues from there, it's now a pattern of abuse.

Now, how much instruction you'll want to provide while teaching to fish kinda depends on the complexity of the problem at hand, and, well, how interested you are in spending time on it. People can get very upset when resources don't seem equitable, and that's a perfectly valid reaction for them to have. Make sure you show that you value them being part of the room, it's just that their problem isn't one that anyone has time to drop everything and work on right now.

If folks just helped person A troubleshoot this complex thing, it's natural for person B to feel really snubbed and wonder what people don't like about them personally when they don't get the same level of support.

So, always make it about the problem, or how they're going about it rather than the person. Let them know you'd love it if they stuck around for another hour when everyone meets and trades cat pics, or something - make them feel welcome and included, provided that they can find a way to be content with the resources the group can give them.

Your instinct on popular 'help' for this looking a little harsh under a modern lens is good, and I'd encourage you to come up with a spotter's guide to unhealthy dependency for the next generation to use. Metaphors break down and risk seeming like insults as they fall out of colloquial use, so directly hitting the problem by describing it plainly is the best way to go.

  • Well, until now, I've never had to drop the words "Ignore", "kick" nor "suspend" when dealing with these kinds of users over on Ask Ubuntu using my system though I do like the link to pastebin suggestion... Therefore +1 – Fabby Sep 20 '18 at 16:04
  • What if the problem is occurring on an MSE-related room, and the user is pinging SE staff members expecting an answer from them? – Sonic the Anonymous Hedgehog Sep 21 '18 at 3:41
7

I've always felt that moderation is about the actions and behaviours rather than the person. A label like "Help Vampire" is easy. It demonises the person, is a pejorative, and gives us no details about the problem.

Okay, so let's focus on the actions and behaviours. What is actually happening here? Someone is apparently exhibiting an overdependence on others for getting their answers. So from now on, let's work with 'overdependent' instead of 'help-vampire'.

How do we deal with folks who absolutely need an answer right now and are going to get a little in your face about it, or feel they have a right to your time and energy?

If you're dealing with someone who pops in and out, just to drop their question, it doesn't need much dealing with unless either the question is really weird or you're in a chatroom with strict guidelines on this not being acceptable, like Snow already pointed out. Chat regulars can choose to answer or ignore it and continue their own conversation, both happen all the time.

The problem arises when it's not just the random question being dropped once by a single user, but this person does get in your face about it. A random question, out of the blue, pinging people for an answer is at the very least annoying, and if done regularly, a clear sign of overdependence on others for answers.

Despite your not liking the article on help vampirism very much, it does contain all the advice needed about reforming someone who's over-dependent on others for answers. The main point given is to actively discourage the behaviour. Sadly, overdependent behaviour is something intrapersonal that ultimately needs to be fixed by the person exhibiting this behaviour, all you can do is not stimulate or reward it.

So, no direct answers to the questions asked, never directly answer a common question, try to stimulate thinking and searching for answers themselves, reward good behaviour when you notice it, or ignore the overdependent person entirely.

If that doesn't help, you reach the stage where, as the article says, you have to 'meet an overdependent person head-on'.

I've tried many approaches so far - letting people know the behaviour in question isn't fine - and that they should ask the questions in the right place (which sometimes works). Sometimes we get the reply "But I'll get downvoted". Occasionally we even point out it's disruptive.

Sounds like a good way of meeting this head-on. Pointing out that someone is being overdependent on others, that they can do this themselves, that they should ask their questions in the appropriate places... all are good ways of approaching the problem head-on, that users, room owners and moderators alike can do.

If even that doesn't work though, you've got a problem user. They've shown their behaviour isn't improving despite a copious amount of guidance, time and effort. Deal with them like you would with any other problem user in chat, by escalating to moderators or using the ignore button if you're a regular chat user, or by warning, deleting messages, kicking and chat suspensions in the case of room owners and moderators.

Overdependent chat users don't have a right to your time and energy by demanding you answer their questions, but neither do they have a right to unlimited time and energy from you for fixing what's essentially their intrapersonal problem.

  • I'm not even sure I'd classify it as "overdependent", since people being dependent on Q/A is precisely the reason they come to stack exchange to begin with. Maybe something else fits better. – Magisch Sep 19 '18 at 11:52
  • Hmm. There's a difference between dependent on Q&A and overdependent on other chat users to answer your questions though ;) I think it holds... the 'over' implies that this goes above and beyond a 'regular' dependency. – Tinkeringbell Sep 19 '18 at 11:54
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    I think "too persistent" or "too impatient" would fit better. It's not against the site itself to be dependent on the answers here, in fact we don't care about that at all in an ideal world. But if someone's exhibiting symptoms of severe impatience it'll go on people's nerves. – Magisch Sep 19 '18 at 11:55
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    @Magisch I'd say persistence and impatience are behaviours following an overdependence on others... the symptoms of severe impatience getting on everyone nerves to me show that this person is more dependent on others (not the SE network, specific users of it) than should be necessary. – Tinkeringbell Sep 19 '18 at 11:59
  • You're correct, but overdependence doesn't imply persistence or annoying behavior (that Journeyman asks about) necessarily. Some people are really too dependent on SE but never show these qualities. – Magisch Sep 19 '18 at 12:01
1

Although the main ServerFault chat room doesn't get much traffic, I think the approach there was/is effective. Although I know you know how it works there, I'll mention it for completeness:

  • Have something pinned (or in the tagline) that says "Don't ask questions here, ask on the actual site."
  • Relentlessly point anyone who asks questions on chat to that tagline.
  • Many sites would not like to see typical help vampire questions (i.e. homework questions without showing any own effort) on the actual site. – Loong Sep 19 '18 at 7:08
  • @Loong However, bad questions on the main site are easier to ignore and can be closed easily, hopefully with a descriptive enough explanation. On chat, you can't ignore the help vampire because they're jumping into the conversation. But when they have a bad question posted on the main site, it's easy enough to quickly move away after casting that close vote. – user392547 Sep 20 '18 at 12:26
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Unless a chatroom has a defined purpose for being there, then it's fairly clear that anyone can participate and ask questions that they don't feel merit a full and formal question. Whether they get a response (or the quality of that response) depends of course on who's in the chatroom at any one time.

On The Workplace, we do get drive-by questions and requests for help in the chatroom and by and large, people do try to help. I don't recall anyone discussing a need to prevent or limit someone asking for help.

Basically, we have good-natured folks around who don't mind helping these people and that's generally what happens. People who don't want to be sucked into these discussions tend to back off while that's happening.

For people who persist in asking and asking and asking a trail of questions in chat, I'd just suggest slowing down any responses so that someone else can respond if they so wish.

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    Well, its ok if no one minds. Its when it gets a little unwelcome or actually bothersome... Most spaces I'm in is cool with the occasional question - but sometimes folks have a tendancy of ... well... making it less than occasional – Journeyman Geek Sep 19 '18 at 10:04
  • "slowing down any responses" is good advice in my opinion – Travis J Sep 19 '18 at 20:06

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