The Strength of Flexibility: Weak Protocols and Weak Links


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.

Weak protocols are to guide rails as strong protocols are to guardrails

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 are to van der Waals forces as strong links are to chemical bonds

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.

Further study

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.

This is a carefully thought through post and an interesting set of analogies. Guide rails and van der waals forces make sense to me.

However the examples aren’t fleshing it out for me. I’m having trouble distinguishing from adjacent notions like heuristics, rules of thumb, best practices etc.

Thank you for your feedback. I agree the examples initially provided may not have sufficiently clarified how weak protocols differ from adjacent concepts like heuristics, rules of thumb, and best practices.

These familiar concepts, while diverse, share a common foundation as decision-making tools grounded in experience and accumulated knowledge. Heuristics are mental shortcuts derived from experiential learning, often applied subconsciously. Rules of thumb, similar in nature, arise from generalised experiences and serve as quick, practical guidelines. Best practices, on the other hand, are methods or techniques that have consistently shown superior results, underpinned by a broader and more formal aggregation of knowledge.

But what sets weak protocols apart from these tools? Weak protocols are not just about leveraging past experiences or established practices. To better illustrate this distinction, let’s consider a well-known heuristic in physics.

Fleming’s Left-Hand Rule metaphor

Fleming’s Left-Hand Rule, a principle from physics, is used to determine the direction of force experienced by a current-carrying conductor in a magnetic field, with the thumb, index finger, and middle finger each representing a different vector (force, magnetic field and electric current).

Now, let’s adapt this heuristic to not just explain physical phenomena but to explore the distinction and interplay between weak protocols and tools more broadly:

Thumb (Force): Represents the outcomes or actions in a human system.

Index Finger (Magnetic Field): Represents the weak protocols that guide these actions.

Middle Finger (Electric Current): Represents the tools (heuristics, rules of thumb, best practices, etc) that drive problem-solving and decision-making.

Weak Links: Can be represented by the electrical resistance in the circuit. In a circuit, resistance affects the flow of current, shaping how effectively the tools (electric current) can work within the confines of the weak protocols (magnetic field). Similarly, weak links in a social or organisational context affect the flow of information and resources, influencing how effectively tools are applied within the guidelines of weak protocols. They can either facilitate or hinder the process, depending on their nature and position within the network.

This analogy highlights how weak protocols (magnetic field) subtly influence the direction and nature of actions (force), while the tools (electric current) provide the energy or means to execute these actions. It underscores the idea that weak protocols and tools, though distinct, work together to shape outcomes in human systems.

Open-source communities serve as a prime example of the interplay between weak links, weak protocols, and a diverse array of tools. These tools range from software platforms that facilitate collaboration to version control systems like Git, and extend to communication channels such as forums and chat applications. Conceptually, these tools are instrumental in enabling decentralised and efficient collaboration, allowing loosely connected individuals to contribute effectively. The tools employed in open-source communities encompass both technical aspects (such as software, coding standards and environments) and communication tools (like discussion boards and documentation). This combination plays a central role in the collective development process and in the dissemination of knowledge. Such tools not only empower individuals within the network but also leverage the affordances of weak protocols and the connections established through weak links.

Desire paths

Desire paths offer another interesting lens to view the Fleming’s Left-Hand Rule metaphor, particularly in identifying which dimension aligns most closely with this concept.

Thumb (Outcome / Force): While this dimension may initially seem to align with desire paths due to its representation of natural and emergent outcomes, it primarily signifies the end results of actions within the system, possibly bypassing established protocols or tools. In contrast, desire paths are more about the spontaneous choices and routes taken by individuals, which is a characteristic not of the outcomes themselves, but of the guiding principles and choices that lead to those outcomes.

Middle Finger (Tools / Electric Current): This dimension represents the specific tools, methods, or strategies used in decision-making and problem-solving. Desire paths are less aligned with this dimension. Tools, being more about activities and specific methodologies, do not typically encompass the organic, emergent patterns that desire paths represent.

Index Finger (Weak Protocols / Magnetic Field): Unlike the more rigid and prescriptive nature of tools, weak protocols embody the flexibility and responsiveness to community needs and preferences that are characteristic of desire paths. Like desire paths, weak protocols are shaped by the collective, emergent behaviours of the community, offering guidance while allowing for natural deviations and adaptations. Both reflect organic movements and preferences, deviating from rigid structures to find the most efficient or natural route.

Social consequences

The social consequences associated with these concepts offer another perspective on distinguishing weak protocols from tools like heuristics, rules of thumb, and best practices. When individuals deviate from established tools such as heuristics or best practices, the primary implications typically relate to efficiency, effectiveness, or the success of a given outcome. For instance, disregarding a common best practice in a technical procedure might lead to less optimal results, but it generally doesn’t result in social sanctions.

In contrast, straying outside the boundaries of weak protocols can lead to significant social repercussions. Such deviations might be met with social disapproval, ostracism, or other forms of social sanctions. Compliance is often enforced through social pressure, underscoring their role in maintaining certain societal or group norms. For example, consider the informal protocol within a workplace that values open and frequent communication. An employee who chooses to work in isolation, ignoring this protocol, might face not just professional challenges but also social disapproval or ostracism from colleagues. This reaction occurs because the deviation isn’t just a matter of efficiency; it’s perceived as a breach of the social norms that underpin the team’s collaborative culture. Here, compliance with weak protocols is enforced more through social pressure and the desire to belong than through formal rules.