Help Vampires

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No, today's article is not an appeal to raise funds via GoFundMe for poor vampires.

It is about the natural but detrimental users of your service.

StackOverflow - and its parent network, StackExchange - have been wildly successful in encouraging people to ask and answer questions about everything. The original site, StackOverflow, is about software engineering. This shouldn't be too surprising since it was founded by Jeff Atwood, of "Coding Horror" fame, and Joel Spolsky, founder of Fog Creek Software, writer of (unfortunately now defunct) JoelOnSoftware blog and creator of Trello.

With their mission to make it easy to get quality answers to tough software questions, they want to make it as simple as possible to sign up and ask questions.

The problem is, when it is too easy to ask questions, people ask some really dumb questions. They might be the ones that could have been answered with the first two results on a Google search, or even searching on StackOverflow itself! But even then, it is easier to just ask, rather than put in the effort.

An even worse case is the "student question", one wherein the university or high school student just copies the question verbatim and expects someone to solve their problems... when the whole point of paying for the course is to learn how to do it.

In StackOverflow, these actually have a term, the "Help Vampire"; my preferred epithet is "lazy b***ards."

The important point, however, is that every business will have a class of users or behaviours they would prefer didn't exist. They are the drunk in the bar, the person in Starbucks who takes up four chairs and 2 tables all by herself, the guy on the airplane who folds his jacket up to take up the entire overhead bin.

The questions for someone building a service are:

  1. When do you worry about them?
  2. How do you deal with them?

In answer to the first, you worry about them when they impact the business, and not much before. The only exception is if they will limit the business growth. In the case of StackOverflow, the Help Vampires only came as the site gained traction and was popular. If you worry about them too early, you will create difficulty in signing your users up. Like the old line about taxes - it is better to get 10% of $1BN than 100% of $1MM - it is better to have 10% of 1BN users be trouble than 100% of 1MM users be good. The first gives you 900MM great users; the second only 1MM.

In answer to the second, you need to assess if you deal with them. Sure, you can create tough or even draconian rules to keep them out, but will that make it too hard to get in and legitimately use your service? Will it kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? Think long and hard about how you discourage without destroying. StackOverflow left it to the community. In this case, it makes sense. Technologists are notoriously intolerant of laziness and leeching. If someone posts an absurd or lazy question, they will pile on and "downvote" it. For other services  that are not as community-driven (we used to call these UGC for "user generated content", back in the days when instead of dollars, the supposed important metric was "eyeballs"...), it will be up to management to find ways to filter the worst of them out while helping tolerate the less egregious offenders.

I have managed strategies to find the balance based on business mission and objectives, but it is always a compromise. The trick is finding the right one.

Vampires are inevitable in any business; managing them is just part of growth.