DHO is Mostly Confused

Rants from Devon H. O'Dell

Help Vampires Aren't

Help vampires. It’s an idea apparently coined by Amy Hoy in an article she wrote over ten years ago. The “vampires” described are common in open source communities. They’re also prevalent in online chat communities like IRC, especially in channels ostensibly for help purposes. The blog post describes a real problem that people experience. Some people in these communities (usually neophytes) engage in maladaptive learning behaviors that drain the energy out of those who might be able to help them (hence the term “help vampire”).

But I have a real problem with this terminology, the presentation of information in the article, and many of its suggestions for solving the problem.

The tone of the first half of the article is glib, but inflammatory. The article claims to be a resource one might share with a so-called “help vampire,” but it spends the entire first half basically lambasting these individuals. This could be solved relatively easy by reversing the order of the article, such that the helpful information is placed first and the backstory comes at the end. If this were the case, the article would read to be more genuine about wanting to help.

Though the article claims that it can help people change their ways (and help others help those people change their ways), it subverts this goal entirely by first offending the person looking for help, and by training educators to recognize these people as malicious. For example, this appears in the fourth paragraph of the article: “[T]hese vampires suck the very life and energy out of people.”

Read that several times. If you were just called a “help vampire” – this is the first suggestion of how to deal with such individuals – would you feel good about yourself? Would you suddenly be open to changing? Or would you be confused why someone is trying to stop you from learning something? Would you feel offended? Would you become defensive? Would you shut down? Would you feel like this community is for you? Here, at the very beginning of an article that is supposed to be helpful to people of this classification, such individuals are already vilified. This is not an effective strategy for educating people, nor is it an effective strategy for convincing people to change their behaviors. In fact, it engages in the same kinds of “life sucking” activities it accuses the “vampire” of possessing!

The problem is that the whole idea of a “help vampire” (as specified) assumes malevolence. It completely disregards the popular aphorism of Hanlon’s razor Hanlon’s razor is usually expressed as “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I prefer “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.” This version is less inflammatory; folks often interpret stupidity as uncorrectable. – the idea that people are more likely to be ignorant than malicious. The “help vampire” likely engages in their maladaptive learning strategy for one or more of the following reasons:

  • It has worked for them in the past.
  • They possess an entity self-theory as defined by Carol Dweck.
  • They’re under a time crunch and a quick answer is more useful than expanding their knowledge.
  • They simply don’t have enough context to know what to ask, how to ask it, or where to start learning.

None of these reasons include malice, so interpreting them as malicious is incorrect. It even ends up being destructive when, for example, a person under a time crunch may intend to learn more about the problem after it is mitigated to a sufficient degree. But this person need help mitigating the problem now. They might have a deadline attached to an angry boss. If you don’t offer help, you’ll never know. The point is really that if the person asking for help is assumed to have a malicious intent, someone equipped to help is less likely to do so. It presents the person as an immediate enemy. This isn’t conducive to education.

These statements about being “out to stop” people for sucking “life and energy” isn’t the only example of where malice is trained. Hoy claimed that the “vampire” has intent:

First, to identify a victim foolish enough to attempt to answer the impossible question. Second, to distract the victim long enough to separate him from his fellows; and [l]astly, to befuddle the victim’s brain while their soul is being removed through the abdominal cavity by way of a standard-issue Bendy Straw.

This is destructive, and a direct example of assuming malice.

An argument is made that the trait of “help vampire” is somehow correlated to gender. This is a sensitive subject for many, especially in computer science, where we have such an unfortunate gender disparity. This is a polarizing issue in our field. As such, needlessly labeling any gender as having some undesirable traits is likely to continue polarization of the field.

Most problematically, Hoy cited no research to back up this claim. She surmised (probably in jest) that this must somehow be related to some evolutionary trait, but provided no rationale for this. As such, there’s no way to address her statement other than to suggest it is purely experiential. As such, it would be more reflective of the gender disparity in computer science than it is some undiscovered evolutionary trait. And the research backs this view up.

The maladaptive learning strategies attributed to the “vampire” are exactly those associated with individuals with an entity self-theory. Defined by Stanford’s Carol Dweck in her book “Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development.” Furthermore, Dweck has also conducted research showing that girls are more likely to have an entity self-theory than men, and that this is developed early in life. Is Math a Gift? Beliefs That Put Females at Risk. Dweck, Carol S.; Ceci, Stephen J. (Ed); Williams, Wendy M. (Ed). (2007). Why aren’t more women in science?: Top researchers debate the evidence, (pp. 47-55). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, xx, 254 pp. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/11546-004 Women begin learning and experience the psychological effects of shitty, sexist, pseudo-aphorisms like “women should be pretty and not smart” at a very young age. The ideas represented by this sexism are culturally reinforced, and such statements actively promote an entity self-theory. Dweck discusses this in some depth in chapter sixteen of her book, where she states directly “we find that [bright girls] are the group with the greatest vulnerability to helplessness.”

Therefore, I don’t believe this claim that men are somehow more likely to be “help vampires” is true. In fact, I believe the evidence shows that women are more likely to engage in “help vampirism.”

And this is what really frustrates me about bringing gender into this at all. It turns out that you can move people from an entity self-theory to an incremental self-theory, and you can do so with the same strategies, regardless of gender. Calling anyone a “help vampire” is a shitty thing to do, and bringing gender into it is pointless because it has no bearing on the solution.

I don’t mean to suggest that Hoy’s article is entirely without merit. Good suggestions are provided as to how individuals can reduce the burden of “help vampires” on their communities. Many of her suggestions directly reflect suggestions I might provide. Others are variations on things like engaging in Socratic exercises, or engaging in the creation of educational material. (One must be careful here: for example, “tutorials” that are poorly written end up encouraging copycat behaviors, and may actually prohibit learning.) The majority of the suggestions are good, and in many cases, a well-intentioned effort is better than none at all.

Really the only suggestion I take issue with is the suggestion to meet “vampires head-on.” First of all, the help vampire doesn’t know that they are, and probably hasn’t heard the term before. So they’re sent to Hoy’s article, where they immediately learn that they are not respected and not appreciated. They become depressed, defensive, angry, and frustrated. This comes from the same portion of the article that refers to itself as a “good resource” for someone to become enlightened to their own “vampy ways.”

Techniques for teaching positive learning strategies exist that don’t require one convey offense (intentionally or otherwise). In many cases, simply asking the person to reframe their question and directly engaging in a Socratic exercise works wonderfully. I’ve written previously on productive ways to engage in Socratic exercises without being patronizing or putting the student on the defensive. My talk on debugging and mindsets, while focused on debugging, contains general-purpose approaches for helping oneself and others learn effectively. (I created a transcript in case watching a video isn’t your thing.)

Self-awareness is also needed. Are you too tired to help? Do you need to leave in a few minutes, and you just don’t have the time to educate the person on all the knowledge that they clearly need to solve their problem? Don’t help. Seriously, just don’t do it. It’s remarkably easy to not engage with people. All you have to do is stop typing. You’ll avoid being drained, and the person will either get the help they need or not. And that was never really your problem, was it?

The article also suggests “weeding out the hopeless cases.” I disagree that any case in particular is hopeless. I also don’t think the set of people who understand the article includes the same set of people who know how to discern between a hopeless case, and a seriously frustrated individual. Certainly it’s possible to identify toxic individuals, but not everyone is in the position to eject someone from the community (and as just mentioned, those who are in that position may not be able to discern between hopeless cases). This should really be a last-ditch effort. Removal from the community is also the most obvious solution to dealing with a problem if you’re in a position of authority, so I’d have preferred it be left out entirely.

Hoy’s article finishes on a high note:

I felt the need to write this because I think that people are basically good, and basically self-sufficient in the right circumstances.

I agree with this in general.

I felt the need to write this because I keep seeing folks being called “help vampires” by others who have clearly misunderstood what (I think) Hoy intended. I believe that she is basically good, and that the article is well-intentioned. I think most of the suggestions in the article are basically good.

As far as I can tell, “help vampires” are as mythological as the real thing; experiencing someone as such is as much a reflection of the mentor as the mentee.

Today, Hoy’s article is misinterpreted and misapplied – at least in my corners of the Internet. Folks are attacked with this inflammatory label after asking a simple question once or twice. They get it applied to them for not understanding how to follow logic from A to B, when they have no knowledge of A or B. It targets neophytes by definition (as they are the most likely to ask the most basic of questions about any given topic). It discourages people who suffer from impostor syndrome by reinforcing the idea that they are somehow wasting the time of those they feel they are imposing upon. A literal interpretation of what (I hope) was intended as hyperbole throughout the article puts individuals trying to learn on the defensive, and teaches would-be mentors to identify and expect malicious intent where clearly none is intended.

I read the article shortly after it was written. I remember quite enjoying it when I first read it. I took the content as hyperbole, but I know that I irrationally called numerous people “help vampires.” And I know it colored my perception of neophytes; I had this implicit platform of knowledge that put me above these vampy creatures. Reflecting on this article after ten years, still being involved in several help and discussion communities on IRC, I feel that it might be time to take another stab at the topic of “help vampires.” And I’m curious what Hoy thinks of her article ten years on.

Because “help vampires” simply aren’t. They’re just people.

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