In human systems, social norms function as guide rails, comparable to those in physical structures. They provide direction and a pathway, yet simultaneously allow for a range of movement and individual variability within that path. This flexibility is in contrast to more rigid rules that serve as guardrails, preventing deviation from a prescribed course. The former are considered “weak protocols”, while the latter are strong protocols.
This post aims to define weak protocols, distinguish them from strong protocols, examine their relationship with weak links in social networks, and explore their wider implications for human interaction and organisational dynamics.
The distinction between weak and strong protocols is akin to the difference between guiding and steering. Weak protocols provide direction and a measure of safety but allow for a wide range of manoeuvre within those boundaries. They permit significant flexibility in interpretation and implementation without imposing strict rules. They provide orientation without rigid control. Consider shared workspace norms: while exact dress code and decorum may not be prescribed, loose expectations help coordinate behaviour. Weak protocols act as soft power, influencing outcomes through coaxing and suggestion rather than coercion.
An illustrative example can be found in music creation, particularly in digital audio workstations (DAW). DAWs support common protocols such as the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) and Human User Interface Protocol (HUI). However, the “touch and feel” of these platforms diverge, catering to the artistic freedom and cultural expression inherent in music. This divergence is a feature of weak protocols, supporting diverse scenes and fostering creativity and awareness.
In contrast, strong protocols, like guardrails, provide a much more rigid structure and control. Guardrails are designed to minimise deviations from a safe or intended path, offering a higher level of safety and constraint. Strong protocols in human systems similarly enforce strict rules and procedures, ensuring consistency, safety, and adherence to specific standards or objectives.
Weak links (or weak ties) refer to social connections that are not very close or intimate. Weak links are often the acquaintances or people we know through other connections rather than through direct, personal interactions.
Granovetter’s 1973 paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” proposed the idea that a person’s weak social ties - their casual connections and loose acquaintances - are more helpful than their strong ties in securing employment.
In the field of physical science, van der Waals forces, though weaker than chemical bonds, play an indispensable role in the behaviour of molecules. These forces are relatively weak electrostatic forces that arise from the transient polarisation of particles. Despite their subtlety, van der Waals forces are vital for various physical phenomena, guiding the interactions and behaviour of molecules.
Weak links stabilize all complex systems (Csermely, 2004; 2005).
Drawing a parallel to social networks, weak links - those less intense, more casual social connections - can be likened to these van der Waals forces. Just as these forces are essential yet not as strong as the chemical bonds that bind atoms into molecules, weak links are not as strong as the close, personal relationships that form our inner social circles. However, they are fundamental to the dynamics of social networks. Weak links act as bridges, linking disparate groups and facilitating the flow of information across a broader social landscape. They provide a form of social “lubrication”, allowing for smoother interactions and connections between diverse parts of a social network.
This lubrication, much like the role of van der Waals forces in physical systems, is subtle but crucial. It enhances the overall cohesion and functionality of social networks, just as van der Waals forces contribute to the stability and properties of physical materials. Without weak links, social networks would be fragmented, with information and ideas circulating only within close-knit communities. Similarly, without van der Waals forces, many physical processes and properties we take for granted would not be possible.
Therefore, in both physical and social systems, it is these weaker, often overlooked interactions that underpin the stability and dynamics of more complex structures. Just as molecules rely on van der Waals forces for their properties and behaviours, social systems depend on weak links for their fluidity, resilience, and capacity to disseminate diverse information.
In network theory, the counterpart to weak links are known as strong links (or strong ties). Strong links in human systems are akin to chemical bonds - they form the foundation of close, stable relationships, such as those between family members, close friends, work colleagues, or business partners. Just as chemical bonds create stable molecules, strong links create strong, resilient networks with high levels of trust, support, and mutual understanding. They are essential for providing emotional support and in-depth information, but they often connect individuals within the same social circle or community, thereby limiting the reach outside one’s immediate network.
In much the same way that physical structures strike a balance between rigid barriers and more flexible boundaries to direct movement, human systems and networks require a similar blend of weak and strong protocols. Weak links - those social connections that lack depth, intimacy, or obligation - serve as gateways for new ideas and exploring the “adjacent possible”, a concept referring to the myriad of potential next steps that emerge from our current state.
Weak protocols, in conjunction with weak links, significantly contribute to nurturing human creativity and the evolution of ideas. In human systems and networks, they provide the connections and necessary flexibility that lead to the organic development of new patterns, behaviours and ideas. For example, the way open-source communities operate exemplifies this concept; loosely connected individuals from across the globe contribute to collective projects, driven by shared interests rather than rigid structures.
Weak protocols shape interactions without stifling improvisation needed for trial-and-error discovery. Weak links transmit information and promising developments across social boundaries. This interplay between weak protocols and weak links is not just complementary; it forms the foundation for human curiosity and creativity.
Consider how weak protocols influence an individual or collective sense of purpose, and help promote a fluid and adaptable approach to community engagement and learning in public.
Consider mapping and counter-mapping as a weak protocol and form of information compression. Its potential for improving communication between epistemic tribes and effectiveness for mitigating production blocking.
Speculate how the role of weak protocols and weak links may evolve in the context of AI-mediated communities.