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photo from @centelm, unsplash

The Plague of Help Vampire Hunters

Self-righteous bullying for the sake of it

Mattia Maldini
Jan 17 · 10 min read

I first heard the term “help Vampire" while looking for a solution in the Arch Linux forum. The Arch Linux community maintains an excellent wiki; sadly, the same cannot be said regarding its forum, as their administrators are so fixated on keeping it clean from clutter that they end up littering it with their own complains.

The vast majority of useful posts end with one or more moderator urging the OP to shut up for some reason. In this particular question, I found the invite not to be a “help Vampire”

What the hell is an help Vampire?

That is indeed an unhealthy behavior for online communities, but also one I very rarely witnessed. What I do see much more frequently is people feeling entitled to be rude because they are fighting an “holy war” against them. In a way, when I am browsing a forum I feel much more threatened by help-vampire hunters than their actual preys.

I should say “annoyed” rather than “threatened”. Victims of this behavior tend to be inexperienced people that show some insecurities about their question, thus attracting the hunters looking for an excuse to scold them. I find extremely upsetting how this works and how it tends to kill otherwise interesting questions.

My examples will focus on the topic of software development because that’s what I do, but conceptually they apply to many other fields.

Help Vampires cannot Exist

There is a question on Meta Stack Overflow that summarizes this whole argument. The most voted answers simply state the definition as I also did, but if you scroll down enough you will see a post with over 100 negative votes. That is a LOT of dislikes, especially for a technical forum.

What was so irredeemably offensive? To the question “What is an help vampire”, the user responded:

Just like the mythical creature they are named after they do not exist. The term help vampire is an insult that tired users throw around when they feel that they have given too much of themselves and with nobody to blame but themselves.

I wholeheartedly agree, and the fact that he was so criticized says a lot about who felt offended. But this isn’t about having faith in humanity or justifying pedantic questions, it’s simply a matter of what can and cannot be; and with online communities as they are, help vampires cannot thrive.

Google is the Laziest Option

The complaint I see the most from arrogant people in online forums is that question posters don’t take their time to do a simple google search for their problem. This leads to many ironic situations where the first result when googling for a problem is question answered with “just google it up”. Recursive much?

Don’t believe me? Here is a forum question about how to implement a random number generator on a commercial microcontroller. User MBedder though it would have looked really witty and smart to comment with a gif tutorial on how to search a question on Google. Unfortunately, by looking up the suggested keywords on the famous search engine the first result is the very same question he considered himself too good to answer.

In a real life scenario that might be a tempting answer when a colleague comes up to you asking for help on a topic you know he/she didn’t research on. Normally, asking for assistance before actually trying to solve a problem is a display of laziness; on the internet however that is simply not possible.

Think about it. How many actions, time and mental effort requires posting on a forum? You have to log in (worse even, sign up for a new service), find the correct topic, describe your situation, provide an example, ask the question and finally wait for some good soul to give insight, all the while risking that no one will eventually show up to respond.

Compare it with any Google search that would have brought the solution to light faster: a few keystroke and you’re done.

Accusing someone of not doing proper research before asking is disingenuous at best. Help Vampire Hunters know that it cannot be the case: if the problem is really as simple as they portray it then the poster willingly took a longer road to the solution; if otherwise a Google search would not have solved it then the question is justified, is it not?

Just Look Away

Even so, let’s assume you find yourself dealing with someone asking for an answer that was just a Google search away. You scoff and shake your head as you think that you can’t be bothered to do someone else’s research for them.

Then don’t.

Seriously. Nobody forces anyone to share their knowledge online, so what is the problem?

As pointed out by this answer, when in doubt just ignore the poster. If the question is dumb, ill-posed and overall not worthy to be answered just let it be! No one will ring at your doorbell trying to hold you accountable for it, and a local authority will probably take the query down if it’s really that bad.

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No need for garlic against these vampires. Photo by @moino007 on unsplash.

Unless, of course, you want easy internet points; in that case even the dumbest of questions becomes eligible for a potential answer. That, however, is entirely on you, so you better not complain if you get dragged into an endless plea for help. Much like real (fictional?) life vampires, help vampires can get into your home only if invited.

Another reason for sticking around might be for fighting your own personal crusade. Feeling entitled, getting adrenaline from arguing on the internet. Being a (help) vampire hunter. This is what leads to stupid answers like this:

You have little experience with coding or electronics but you are going to jump right in on using an Arduino and an accelerometer and a gyro and an SD card?

It is YOUR science project but you want the code, the parts list, and the pinout handed to you?

Count me out.

What does this achieve? This user went the extra mile to chime in and waste everyone’s time just to make it clear that they wanted nothing to do with answering the question.

It defeats the purpose and insults someone else in the process. Only an a**hole (and a very bored one) would do that.

Assuming Might Make You Look Stupid

Sometimes a topic looks stupid, but in reality it is just misunderstood. Still, some people crave the feeling of superiority that comes from imagining how dumb others can be for asking such silly questions. So they jump in head first, ready to deliver some “sick burns” on the unfortunate posters.

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This leads to a situation common on Stackoverflow where most of the comments end up being “your question is wrong”, which is the epitome of ridiculous.

Trying to overcome the XY problem is one thing, but simply assuming that the original poster simply doesn’t know any better will not result in a productive outcome.

Too self entitled to elaborate on the answer, the help vampire hunter reverts the natural order of things, as normally it is the response that is judged right or wrong.

When asking a question, it is disheartening to hear someone stop and say “I don’t know, but you are dumb regardless”. Stop doing that.

Reading the Friendly Manual is Not the Solution

When asking advice on heavily technical subjects you might encounter the acronym RTFM, which expands to Read The F. Manual. The F here might stand for Friendly, Funny or something else depending on the idiom.

Basically it is an invite to revise the documentation of the discussed topic to find the answer. Besides being extremely passive aggressive behavior it is also quite stupid.

While it is safe to assume that the official documentation (if any) of a toll will hold all the information needed, all the time, finding it can be a daunting task.

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Take this question on the Arch Linux forums, where a user asks whether it is possible for the package manager to only download the required packages without actually installing them:

Hello,

I’ve searched the man page but found nothing about this.

My ISP has traffic limits and has HappyHours at night, so I’d like to download the possible upgrades with a cronjob but pacman doesn’t seem to have a flag for that, like — download-only or something similar.

Is there any alternative?

Should I add a request for that features?

Thanks

A couple of keyboard heroes promptly jump in to point out how the answer was there all along:

Read the manpage, -w/ — downloadonly. Not sure how you missed it.

don’t know how he missed it. maybe he didn’t read the right man page

Now, the manpage for pacman is over 500 lines long, and the flag in question is mentioned in only two of them. It is not hard to imagine how that information could have slipped from a first read — but sure, let’s rub it in their face.

Maybe you are thinking that 500 lines are not much, and the OP deserved the snarky remarks; let’s try with 500 pages then, because that is the average length of a technical reference manual for integrated circuits. When the documentation is that big, telling someone to just “go look for the answer here” without giving at least an hint is borderline idiotic, but people still do that.

Note that attaching a RTFM to an answer that provides some sort of help is still acceptable: you are being rude, but at least bring something to the table. What really annoys me is the same bad attitude by itself. You understand the question, you know the answer, but for some reason you still decide to still invest the time needed to write a reply without actually providing help.

Your Monster May Be a Kid

Screaming on the internet has been a common practice for a few decades now. Bashing someone else because you are a better something will give a lot of people satisfaction that they lack from their own miserable lives.

When I feel attacked or insulted I can just brush it off or defend myself because I know what I’m talking about. At least, I can do it now.

The internet does not have an age limit, and the entry level for software development has been lowering for quite a while. As a consequence many of the confused users asking for help on various forums are teenagers or even kids, who may not have developed the thick skin needed to argue on the web yet.

When reloading their hate-filled silver-pointed arrows, the help vampire hunters should ask themselves if they would be as vitriolic towards a child asking that question in front of them. It is disheartening to see so much rudeness concentrated in the Arduino forums, a place where you would expect to find unexperienced developers trying to take their first steps in the field.

In this regard, I have my own experience to share. Unfortunately the original question has been deleted from StackOverflow, but I remember it quite vividly.

About ten years ago I was a teenager getting his hands on his first Raspberry Pi, and I was ecstatic about it. At some point I decided to make a simple music player by connecting it to a speaker and loading some songs on a USB drive to be auto mounted at startup.

Unfortunately for some reason the Pi was failing to boot — throwing me in a recovery shell that I knew nothing about — but only when the USB drive was connected on power up. If I first turned it on and then mounted the device, everything worked.

Now I know for certain what the problem was, as anyone with a bit of experience with the tool could suggest: insufficient power supply. I was using a random phone charger that provided enough steam for most use cases but failed at boot time when having to light up the USB device as well.

However, back then I had no idea. I headed over to Stackoverflow with my best hopes and described my problem. The first answer was something along these lines:

What’s wrong? Your question is wrong. You didn’t specify the model of the device or the operating system you are using.
What does your system do at boot? What programs are you running?

How can you hope to find an answer when you provide so little information about your problem?

That shook me a bit. I was a very self-conscious kid, and the accusation of sloppy work hit me hard; so, I immediately apologized and edited my question to include a lengthy description of my system.

After that, can you imagine what happened?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The user that was so adamant about needing all the possible information before making an assessment, so much that they thought acceptable bashing me for not providing what they needed, was dead silent after receiving an update. In the end, nobody answered my question and I never finished that music player.

Don’t be like that. Before being snarky and rude, consider if your reply actually achieves something. If you are prompting clarification, make sure you need that. Ask yourself what you are adding to the conversation and, if the answer is nothing, maybe turn the voice down.

Note that this doesn’t mean that you are wrong, or that the other side cannot improve, but blind insults are seldom helpful to that end.

Remember: there are no truly dumb questions, because stupid people don’t ask questions.

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Mattia Maldini

Written by

Computer Science Master from Alma Mater Studiorum, Bologna; interested in a wide range of topics, from functional programming to embedded systems.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Mattia Maldini

Written by

Computer Science Master from Alma Mater Studiorum, Bologna; interested in a wide range of topics, from functional programming to embedded systems.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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