I just did the following interview with Heather about the development and evolution of IAM for an essay she's writing. I think she's also writing a few other people who helped in latter development (client software, iam.code, etc.). Anyway, here it is:

When was IAM created? Where did the idea come from? What is IAM meant to accomplish?

IAM was created in late 2000 — we're nearly at the two year anniversary. I don't think I can fully take credit for the main idea as blogs (web logs, online journals) were starting to take off, and, in fact, my very early notes refer to the core engine as “BME blog”. Basically, I wanted a place to keep track of my life and thoughts (and online diary) as well as a couple minor features.

I'd never actually even considered that it could be a community site — yes, it was meant to be a collection of people's diaries, but the original design had no messaging system, and I think even forums were added as an afterthought. That said, it was clear literally within days that this was going to balloon quickly and that people wanted it to serve not just as a journal but as a home of sorts. I think that now there are many people on IAM who have no other online page of their own, and there are many, myself included, who spend most of their time online with a window to IAM open.

I have tried my hardest to listen to what this community has asked for and implement it. I don't see myself as a leader or anything like that, nor do I particularly want to be, but I have fallen into a position where I get to lay out a foundation, and I really hope that I have honored all the wonderful people who have taken part by doing what is no more and no less than my fair share of the work to make this world a decent place.

How many people are currently using IAM?

Over its life IAM has had approximately 20,000 members and I think it currently has a number that hovers in the 6,500 range (a good number; manageable, but still large enough that nearly every part of the planet has enough members to have in-real-life meets), with at least 85% of those people using IAM every few days.

I tend not to look at the numbers that much because they are rather sobering — it really costs me a lot to host, both in dollars and in time. But it's more than worth it.

Was BME affected by the introduction of IAM? How so?

That's a complicated question — I've always thought of BME not as my work, but as the byproduct of a community much larger than anything my (admittedly massive) ego could encompass. IAM has absolutely clarified and, to me, proven that theory.

As far as effect on submissions, IAM has had little effect. I think that maybe people who spend a lot of time on IAM tend to contribute to BME less simply because it slips their mind, but now that I've integrated the submissions engine into IAM, I don't think that's a problem any more. As far as memberships, it's had very little effect since the “pay” aspect of BME serves a different goal than IAM and is “marketed” as something separate.

If I was a person who was profit oriented I believe I could easily charge a small amount for IAM (or host advertisements), but ethically it makes me very uncomfortable. As long as I can afford to personally pay the bills I will. Whenever I've needed to ask, people have been very generous with me, and I think it would be an enormous violation of trust for me to choose to try and profit from that.

What about BMEshop, BMEbooks, ModCon, etc?

ModCon significantly predates IAM, so there's probably not much interaction there besides peripherally. BMEshop on the other hand, while having started long before IAM, definitely has grown thanks to the IAM community — although it is so hard to tell. We probably could have made similar sales by simply advertising heavily on BME, but I think that the type of product we retail is better appreciated by the IAM audience, which I believe on the whole really represents the “top 10%” of this community (because of the screening process).

BMEbooks exists outside of BME and IAM on the whole, since it distributes internationally both through sites like and through bookstores that don't even know IAM exists. That said, BMEshop regularly sells half of any run of books we publish, so it's definitely a convoluted “one hand washes the other” scenario.

How many people were responsible for the initial creation of IAM? How long did the prototype take to build?

IAM, both as a prototype and in its current state is entirely written and designed by me (although with the feedback and beta testing help of many, many individuals). The prototype was written over two days — that had all the diarying features, the forums, the image galleries, the main indexing. Messaging (the IM system) was added over about three hours a few days later if I remember right. After that, development has never stopped.

Was the overall design process divided into major phases? What were the major steps?

The core engine and interfaces were designed in a (paper) sketchbook that I would take with me to the laundromat. I find that brainstorming and designing on paper is far less limiting than designing on a computer. Of course, I was born in 1973, making me about four years too young to have grown up using a computer as a universal design tool.

Other than that, there's just the programming and testing step. Once the core engine was built (as I said, in two days), I just kept cobbling on piece after piece and don't have any serious plans on stopping.

What tools & technologies were used to create the basic model of IAM?

IAM runs on a standard IIS (Windows) server, although one that's been absolutely stripped down to make it. I chose Windows simply because that's where more of my experience as a programmer exists, and, to be honest, a properly written program on a properly stripped down OS runs just as fast under Windows — and the fact that IAM outperforms the Linux-based competitors should lend credence to that claim.

As far as the languages, it's actually written in a language called PowerBasic. I want to make it clear that this is not Qbasic or VisualBasic. PowerBasic is a stunningly fast console compiler (no GUI by default), and I believe that under Windows it is the most efficient compiler for writing CGI applications. Database drivers, spell check modules, mapping engines, and so on were all written from scratch by me in my spare time.

From your point of view, what were the things that helped or hindered the success of IAM? What would you have done differently?

I wrote IAM because I wanted to use it. It's not a commercial product, and I have never thought of it as such. Any time I needed a feature for myself, because I wanted it, I added it. As such, IAM is incredibly fast and easy to use, but at the same time is far more feature rich and powerful than any other comparable system out there (including the clones of IAM). IAM has certainly had challenges from time to time, but nothing that wasn't fairly easily resolved.

Elaborating on that, what were the top few challenges that had to be overcome; what made designing and implementing IAM particularly difficult, or put it in danger of not being completed? How were these issues addressed?

There were four major stumbling blocks that I faced. I'll start with money. When I first started IAM, it was totally open to the public. Anyone that wanted to could add a page (and they did). I didn't want to restrict access, but at the same time, I couldn't afford not to. At that point I simply cut access back to people who have (at least when they added their account) BME access either by sending in photos or stories, or by purchasing a membership. IAM is still definitely draining my resources, but now at a rate which I think is more fair, and, I think that this has changed the dynamic of the members for the better.

The second stumbling block was security. Especially once IAM became restricted access, people started seeking out holes in its security system. Not having any real experience in this sort of thing, I made some monstrous mistakes — it's actually quite surprising that no serious violations never happened. Thankfully I believe that now — and really only quite recently — those holes have been addressed. In addition, there are a handful of members who are very good about finding various holes and letting me know their details so I can fix them without issue.

The third and fourth issues are both related to fighting on the site. Yes, fights do happen between members regularly (it would be weird if they didn't). The general decency of the people here as well as the TOS limit the damage that a small fight can do, but there have been two site-shaking fights that could have ended IAM (and nearly did). The first of those was September 11, 2001. It's no secret that I have very anti-big business and anti-tyranny beliefs, and I did not hide my belief that these factors were the direct cause of the attacks. Nowadays, such a viewpoint is almost the norm on IAM, but back then most Americans (which make up the bulk of IAM) had never had to face such issues and took enormous offense at — or at least found crass and hurtful — some of my commentary and news analysis.

The site dissolved into the most hateful fighting I'd ever seen — pages were flooded with everything from racist diatribes to quite serious calls to organize a “posse” to come up to Canada and end my life. At its peak I turned off IAM for a day or two, and then when IAM returned I called for a two-week voluntary moratorium on political discussion. Thankfully most people agreed to make IAM a “safe space” and we made it through it.

The fourth and final hindrance was the dissolution (at least as far as most IAM members were concerned) of the CoBM (Church of Body Modification). I don't think this problem is entirely over yet, but the key point was that many members of IAM felt that the CoBM had misled them and in many cases actually stolen and misappropriated money from them. The CoBM made some very unpleasant accusations in return, both against members and the general IAM population and against me, and things got particularly nasty and hateful. A large percentage of the CoBM's members and ministers quit the CoBM in disgust, and the majority that didn't left IAM for the CoBM's own community site (which today has I think a bit under 180 members, with very few logging in according to their usage details). All that said, I have no desire at all to fight with the CoBM. As long as IAM isn't used to promote the CoBM, that's just fine by me and I hope that a state of “quietly disagreeing” can continue (since there are a number of CoBM members and ministers on IAM, a number of whom I consider friends still).

Those last two megafights are very sad because they resulted in the termination of a number of very old and dear friendships, and it makes me sad to think about. Yes, there was a terminal difference of opinion, but I still miss many of the people involved. If I could change anything, it would be how that was handled from the very start.

As far as other things I'd do differently, while I'm sure that two years of hands-on experience would save me some time and cost, ultimately things have turned out for the best and I have no complaints.

Overall, to what extent would you consider it a success or failure?

IAM has definitely been a raging success.

What standards do you use to define its success?

There is one standard alone that has value — do people enjoy using it and has it improved the life of those people in a measurable way? I believe that this is definitely a big yes. As far as other things like features and quality, IAM dramatically outperforms any similar system on the market, but as I said, that's irrelevent. At least indirectly, it has made people happy, and really, what else is there?

One Comment

  1. Elizabeth wrote:

    Not being a truly social person in any real-life sense. I appreciate this having been my home outside of my head for so many years. That it’s gone to me is still a fucking pisser.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 9:40 am | Permalink
Wow Shannon, that's really annoying! What is it, 1997 on Geocities? Retroweb is NOT cool!

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *