The PGP web of trust is a social network, even if many of the people who published their keys would never admit joining one. But there are less than sixty thousand users, so low density of users in most social environments causes weak connectivity in the web of trust : the strong set (largest set of keys such that for any two keys in the set, there is a path from one to the other) ties together less than fifty thousand users. This has been a problem for a long time : in 1997 the strong set was only 3100 keys out of sixty thousand published. And in a fast expanding online social sphere, a stagnating network of sixty thousand users is marginal. Of course, many of those users participate in core institutions of the developper community, but that does not make that population any less marginal. Many don’t mind that marginality, but our taste for elitist cave-dwelling among like-minded peers will not change the fact that effective software development is a social sport. Societies need trust, and restricting our communications to people whose idea of a party is a key signing party is not going to help us very much, so a solution is needed.
The PGP web of trust is no longer the only application that supports a social graph. With the recent mainstream explosion of social networking and digital identity applications, there is an embarrassing wealth of choices such as Google’s OpenSocial specificationhat propose a common set of API for social applications across multiple sites. Social networking in a web environment, including all forms of publication such as blogging, microblogging, forums and anything else that support links is a way to build digital identity. Each person that follows your updates or links to your articles is in effect vouching for the authenticity of your personae, and each one who adds you as a “friend” on a social network is an even stronger vote toward the authenticity of your profile, even if some people add any comer as their “friend”.
The vetting process in social networking applications is in effect just as good as the average key signing outside of a proper key signing process : some will actually check who they are vetting, others will happily sign anything – and it does not matter too much because the whole point of the web of trust is to handle a continuous fabric whose nodes have different reputations and no guarantee of reliability. The result is a weak form of pseudonymous web of trust – just like the PGP web of trust. But with an untrusted technological infrastructure, it is only about strong enough for common social use.
An anaemic GPG web of trust and thriving social networking applications are obvious matches. So what about a social networking application that handles the PGP web of trust ? As usual, similar inputs through similar individuals generate similar outputs – the same problems with the same environment and the same tools handled by people who share backgrounds produce the same conclusions. So now that I am trawling search engines about that concept I find that I am not the only one to hav thought about it. Who will be the first to develop a social networking application plug-in that links a profile to a GPG key to facilitate and encourage key signing between members of the same platform that know each other ?