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March 19, 2004

LOAF: Social email filtering

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Posted by Clay Shirky

From Joshua Schachter, inventor of memepool, Geo URL, and and Maciej Ceglowski of Idle Words and the Web crawl, comes LOAF, a way of sharing address books without disclosing their contents, so that groups of LOAF-enabled users can build social networks on top of connectedness metrics, without needing central servers or full disclosure.
When you receive an email from an address you have not previously written to, LOAF checks to see if the email address is known to any of your existing correspondents. This essentially sorts incoming email into three categories: - Mail from complete strangers These are people whom you do not know, and who are also unknown to your correspondents. - Mail from partial strangers These are people you have never sent email to, but who have gotten email from at least one of your own correspondents. [...] - Mail from people you know This last category consists of people whom you have written to before. Presumably this is email you're most interested in, unless it's another forward from your mom. Mail in category (2) can be further classified by counting how many correspondents you and the sender have in common. If the originating email appears in the address books of several of your correspondents, this may indicate a person with whom you have many connections. Insert standard social network theory here.
Also, don't miss the discussion of LOAF attack strategies, including the Dictionary attack, Me Too attack, Ex-Girlfriend attack, and Marc Canter attack. Both Josh and Maciej are geniuses, in the older and rarer sense of the word, so this should be well worth playing with. UPDATE: Kellan has pointed out another LOAF in the comments, which is a bizarre and elaborate joke, with verbose but uninformative language and a long list of fake implementations. (The Python implementation of that LOAF consists of the single command 'pass'.) The two LOAFs (LOAVES?) are unrelated -- I doubt Josh and Maciej knew about the joke LOAF in naming their project.Update to the update: The real LOAF is named after the joke LOAF. Maybe we can retrofit the acronym to mean List of a Friend?

Comments (8) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. kellan on March 19, 2004 4:16 PM writes...

This is presumably distinct from the earlier LOAF project (described as "LOAF is a Social Software Experimental Program") discussed on this wiki:

Long list of known implementations:

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2. Gordon on March 19, 2004 4:40 PM writes...

So, with my vague grasp of such things, is this an excellent way to handle spam? Was that the intention? Clever stuff indeed.

Your post also reminds me to try and remember people's names - had no idea Joshua was behind all three of those (even though I do recognise the name).

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3. Shannon Clark on March 19, 2004 6:50 PM writes...

Sounds interesting - however, there is a large category of mail it may not "solve" for.

That is, "good" mass mail - yahoogroups comes to mind a major and large example of this, but in general any mailing, as well as "good" vendors (those you have a real relationship with who might want to send you deals, discounts, updates).

So, for example, I would not want to miss my update email from's associates plan. However likewise I may not want to be forced to put each mailing list into my personall addressbook (and many "good" mass mails use unique email addresses for the mailing).

Also, "mail an article" and more critically "e-tickets" from airlines strike me as a nother major category.

One option might be to have a "whitelist" of good domains for which *@domainname would be accepted as non-spam (perhaps to be passed off to another filter to check for spoofed addresses etc.

like the idea however,

Founder, MeshForum (

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4. Kevin Marks on March 20, 2004 5:24 AM writes...

Both LOAF's (and indeed originated in discussions in the #joiito IRC channel. Tangra's original LOAF meme was born there thus:

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5. Zbigniew Lukasiak on March 21, 2004 2:20 AM writes...

That is an interesting idea - but I do see a problem with how it is treating the email address. Basicly an email address becomes here a kind of password. I am not sure where does it lead, but I must admit that in fact the web crawlers and spammers did make us to hide our email addres.

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6. Hugh J. Sloan III on March 22, 2004 10:23 PM writes...

Are there any early-stage technology teams pursuing this? Please contact me.

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7. Nancy McGough on March 24, 2004 2:47 AM writes...

Hugh, it's GPL'd and they are testing it with Pine and Procmail. Anyone who uses Pine and Procmail is free to join in! I've written about it on a number of my pages including my Pine, Procmail, and Reverse Spam Filtering pages. For this system to be expanded so it can work well with all email systems, we probably need some new standards. And the place to work on those is the ASRG (Anti Spam Research Group) which is at


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8. Richard Soderberg on July 17, 2004 4:43 AM writes...

Create a separate LOAF header for mailing list data, and share that, too. It's a bit more per message, but I'll suffer gladly if it stops spam. Sucks to be a modem user, though, so don't share quite as much -- and it's okay if false positives get in once in a while, they probably won't get picked up by the individual list filters, so they'll stick out like a sore thumb.

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