An interesting article by Robin Sloan on “Stock and Flow“

I was an eco­nom­ics major in col­lege, and I’ve been grate­ful ever since for the few key con­cepts it drilled into me: things like oppor­tu­nity cost, sunk cost (that’s a big one), and mar­ginal cost. I think about this stuff all the time. Some­times I con­sider the mar­ginal cost of, like, mak­ing myself another sandwich.

But one of the biggest take­aways was the con­cept of stock and flow.

Do you know about this? Couldn’t be sim­pler, and really, it’s not even that much of an a-ha. There are two kinds of quan­ti­ties in the world. Stock is a sta­tic value: money in the bank, or trees in the for­est. Flow is a rate of change: fif­teen dol­lars an hour, or three-thousand tooth­picks a day. Easy. Too easy.

But I actu­ally think stock and flow is the mas­ter metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind peo­ple that you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the con­tent you pro­duce that’s as inter­est­ing in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what peo­ple dis­cover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, build­ing fans over time.

I feel like flow is ascen­dant these days, for obvi­ous reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audi­ence and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a tread­mill, and you can’t spend all of your time run­ning on the tread­mill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I’ve got noth­ing here.

But I’m not say­ing you should ignore flow! No: this is no time to hole up and work in iso­la­tion, emerg­ing after long months or years with your perfectly-polished opus. Every­body will go: huh? Who are you? And even if they don’t—even if your exquisitely-carved mar­ble statue of Boba Fett is the talk of the tum­blrs for two whole days—if you don’t have flow to plug your new fans into, you’re suf­fer­ing a huge (here it is!) oppor­tu­nity cost. You’ll have to find them all again next time you emerge from your cave.

Here’s a case study: my pal Alexis Madri­gal here in SF has got the stock/flow bal­ance down. On one end of the spec­trum, he’s a Twit­ter nat­ural and a Tum­blr adept. Madrigal’s got mad flow; you plug in, and you get a steady stream of inter­est­ing stuff every day. But on the other end of the spectrum—and man, this is just so important—he’s work­ing on a deep, nuanced his­tory of green tech in Amer­ica. He’s work­ing on a book intended to stand the test of time.

You can tell that I want you to stop and think about stock here. I feel like we all got really good at flow, really fast. But flow is ephemeral. Stock sticks around. Stock is cap­i­tal. Stock is protein.

And the real magic trick in 2010 is to put them both together. To keep the ball bounc­ing with your flow—to main­tain that open chan­nel of communication—while you work on some kick-ass stock in the back­ground. Sac­ri­fice nei­ther. It’s the hybrid strategy.

So, okay, I was think­ing about stock and flow while I was doing the dishes just a sec­ond ago, and won­dered: Wait. There are all these super-successful artists and media peo­ple today who don’t really think about flow. Like, Wes Ander­son? Come on. He’s all stock. And he seems to do okay.

But I think the secret is that some­body else does his flow for him. I mean, what are PR and adver­tis­ing? Flow, bought and paid for. Mes­sages metered out over time. Rewind his­tory and put Wes Ander­son on his own—alone in the world—and I don’t think you get the same result. His stock is strong stuff: hugely com­pelling, utterly unique. But how does he tell peo­ple about it?

So if you are in the posi­tion to have some­body else han­dle your flow while you tend to your stock: awe­some. But that’s true for almost no one, and will (I think?) be true for even fewer over time, so you need to have your own plan for this stuff.

Any­way: this is not a huge insight, I know. Mostly I just wanted to share the lingo, because it’s been echo­ing in my head since my first micro­eco­nom­ics course. Today I’m still always ask­ing myself: Is this stock? Is this flow? How’s my mix? Do I have enough of both?

44 Responses


Joshua Dance says:

Great ideas. I feel like most of the “Social Media Guru” peo­ple are all flow and no stock. They don’t every pro­duce any­thing that stands the test of time. And for that mat­ter a lot of blog­gers are just flow as well. 33 Ways to Make Money posts get out­dated pretty quick. I feel that I also have neglected stock with my own stuff and have try­ing to get back to more stock pro­duc­ing. Thanks for the great ideas.

Saheli says:

This is a good men­tal model, with a nice Anglo-Saxon poetic ring to it, for bal­anc­ing one’s daily man­age­ment. Nice.

Robin Sloan says:

I’m glad you picked up on the lin­guis­tics of it. It’s just nice to say: stock and flow.

PoN says:

I pre­fer hus­tle and flow.

typofi says:

Thanks for the lingo!

I’ve been think­ing lately how the flow (I just didn’t have a good word for it before) can be seen as noise (from com­mu­ni­ca­tion the­o­ries) in sit­u­a­tions where you are try­ing to get to the stock.

I mean moments where you know that the infor­ma­tion you seek is out there, but you can’t find what you want because all you get is, as said by Joshua, “33 ways of doing x” and tag clouds burst­ing with #ash­tonkutch­ner, #lol, and #retweet­this. Even if you’re not look­ing for some­thing in par­tic­u­lar, the prob­lem often arises when you are try­ing to find deeper arti­cles in general.

I’m not against the social media, far from it. I’m just acknowl­edg­ing that we need bet­ter search algo­rithms and other tools to bal­ance or even bat­tle the pure attention-seeking flow con­ven­tions. (e.g. celebrity gos­sip, or peo­ple blog­ging top lists and how-to arti­cles just because they know those will attract traffic)

Carlos says:

Awe­some. I think peo­ple should think more about the legacy they will leave to the future gen­er­a­tions. Could be a small busi­ness or some nice paint­ings, every­one wants to be remem­bered, and that’s the stock you are talk­ing about here. The flow is the thing that comes in the mean­time you are build­ing your stock.

milann says:

you took the words out of my mouth.
thank you for giv­ing the phan­toms in my head some form,
me and my busi­ness asso­ciates have been going about this for months now and it still felt like we were try­ing to give words to some silent moments in a Godard film or something.

J. Smith says:

great stuff. couldn’t agree more. file this under “read or die.”

This is fan­tas­tic, Robin. Really.
I get a lot of ques­tions from cre­atives just begin­ning (or about to begin) in their respec­tive fields about how to get started pro­mot­ing themselves.

I had been using a sim­i­lar idea, but a poor anal­ogy: you bread­crumb your audi­ence along like Hansel and Gre­tel did, lead­ing your fans along a trail of small bits of infor­ma­tion and tiny deli­cious morsels of out­put. It’s impor­tant that these tasty morsels have a clear point of view and a con­sis­tent fla­vor. Then, every once in a while, deliver a house of candy. But don’t eat your audi­ence. That’d be bad.

In ret­ro­spect, stock and flow is a way bet­ter way to say this.

Robin Sloan says:

Ha haha­ha­ha­haha. I love this. It’s the sin­is­ter ver­sion of stock. Now I want to come up w/ more analo­gies. Like,

flow : stock :: stormtroop­ers : DEATH STAR

Social Media Guru” peo­ple are all flow and no stock. It really is fun to say, but I also still love the “all hat and no cat­tle” idiom.

Per­haps we need search engines that give us the explicit choice of ask­ing “What’s in stock”? I mean we already do that a bit when decid­ing to search ama­zon, deli­cious, twit­ter, or Google scholar. Only show me results that have stood the test of time. Words that last.

Robin Sloan says:

That’s inter­est­ing! Some sense of mea­sur­ing what’s held up… if noth­ing else, a graph in Google Ana­lyt­ics that shows which con­tent has had a durable audi­ence. Dura­bil­ity is a key word.

IQpierce says:

I think that Google already works this way… which might be why it’s so successful.

In col­lege a pro­fes­sor told me that fun­da­men­tally, Google’s algo­rithm works around the con­cept of “hubs” and “con­tent.” This is actu­ally a very old idea: because socially, peo­ple them­selves have always been about “hubs” and “con­tent.” If you’re the socially-awkward bril­liant pro­gram­mer, you’re the con­tent: you can make stuff. If you’re the incred­i­bly out­go­ing HR lady who seems to know every other per­son in her indus­try, you’re a hub.

Google’s job is to help peo­ple get to con­tent; but they do it by using hubs., twit­ter posts, blogs — these are hubs/flow that peo­ple use to point their friends towards the content/stock — pages of use­ful infor­ma­tion. Google rates a hub higher when it links to high-quality con­tent; and they link con­tent higher when it’s linked-to by a highly-rated hub (in a nice chicken-and-egg paradox).

JTS says:

To be hon­est, there’s a lot of run­ners who train on tread­mills all the time (or a lot of the time), and it can be a fairly effec­tive way of build­ing up miles. So that metaphor is a lit­tle confusing. 

Other than that, I think this is a fairly effec­tive way of explain­ing the rela­tion­ship that many cre­atives should have/need to have to the web. I work in pub­lish­ing, and many of the editors/writers that I inter­act with on a reg­u­lar basis are great stock peo­ple — it’s what they’ve been doing for decades. They are just not very good at flow. On the other hand, I look at what a lot of other media companies/bloggers/creatives/etc are doing and it looks like a whole lot of flow which feels like a whole lot of spin­ning of the prover­bial wheels. The ideal mix is some­thing like Frank’s rela­tion­ship as described above.

Robin Sloan says:

Good point re: tread­mills. If I wanted to tor­ture the anal­ogy I could say: “Aha, pre­cisely! Some­times flow helps you cross-train on your way to mak­ing great stock!”—but mostly, I think I just used too many (different/conflicting) analogies 🙂

Thanks for the shout out! We need to con­vene another meet­ing of the mutual admi­ra­tion soci­ety soon…

Now that you men­tion it, here’s how I think about stock and flow. Flow is how I see the world. Stock is what hap­pens when I apply my world­view to some­thing that mat­ters for long enough that I fun­da­men­tally trans­form how I see the world. Record­ing that process is what cre­ates the thing of last­ing value. (I hope.)

And now, here’s a thought that is related but sort of tan­gen­tially. I’ve become obsessed with Tum­blr as a medium for his­tor­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion recently. It’s just so good at defa­mil­iar­iza­tion in that Bakhtin sense… One minute you’re look­ing at pony made out of vegan donuts, the next you’re star­ing at a little-known stunt from 1955. Peo­ple who would not read David McCul­lough in a mil­lion years sud­denly find his­tory fas­ci­nat­ing. The strange­ness and past­ness of the past come to dom­i­nate the back­casted ideas that we have about what those times were like. 

But… Tum­blr records only the flow of our his­to­ries with­out ever tak­ing stock of why and how we ended up where we are. There is no record of deci­sions made or the world’s forces brought to bear. Tumblr’s ver­sion of his­tory has no explana­tory power. It does not syn­the­size what the images from the past with where we are in the present or with the other things we know of the past. So, to me, the mean­ing that the flow of pho­tos has is fun­da­men­tally lim­ited, even if it’s beau­ti­ful and fascinating.

Saheli says:

Flow is how I see the world. Stock is what hap pens when I apply my world view to some thing that mat ters for long enough that I fun da men­tally trans form how I see the world. Record ing that process is what cre ates the thing of last ing value. 

D’accord!, she cried, in the most emphatic voice. You describe what I want out of good writ­ing. This is what makes it so mag­i­cally, and it hits all the points of why I value such stock to begin with.

Though what the hell, Snark­mar­ket? What is up with the kern­ing in “trans form” “fun da men­tally” “Record ing” “cre ates” and “last ing” when I just copy and paste? Are you secretly try­ing to trick me into think­ing like some sort of crazed poet? That is a weird way to gen­er­ate stock.

Robin Sloan says:

(They are wee micro­spaces that allow the words to break grace­fully across the page. They only become evi­dent when ungainly humans rip these words from their per­fect habitat.)

Tumblr’s ver­sion of his­tory has no explana­tory power.”

This is a great sen­tence, and of course also applies to twit­ter or your daily news segment.

Ryan McAdam says:

I under­stand and agree with stock & flow as it per­tains to social media, et al. How­ever, I think you may want to take another look at the premise you use to describe stock. In prac­tice, money is made from thin air in ever increas­ing amounts. Trees are a nat­ural resource and as such are finite – whether based upon avail­able land, growth cycles, or envi­ron­men­tal influ­ences. I’m sus­pect your friend who is writ­ing about green tech­nol­ogy would agree.

TRMW says:

Thanks for this. Well said.

Speak­ing of flow, where’s your Twit­ter feed Robin? Looked around, can’t find it.

That’s another strength of things like Tum­blr and Twit­ter, it just takes one click to form a light­weight “I want to know more about you” rela­tion­ship. “Flow” is stick­ier than “Stock”.

Robin Sloan says:

I’m @robinsloan! And some­what dis­cour­aged it was hard to find. Hmm.

You’re totally right about the inter­play; when everything’s work­ing together, stock leads to flow leads to stock.

Tim Maly says:

I think you’re right on about how we tend to feel like we got good at flow really fast. I’ve also been com­ing around to think­ing that this might often be an illu­sion. It’s really, really easy to reblog, retweet, reshare with­out think­ing and to clog the flow with stuff that other peo­ple have seen or that aren’t on topic (for what­ever value of “on topic” you feel like your feed should have).

This is one of the things that rec­om­mends the ‘offi­cial’ retweet fea­ture. If dozens of your friends retweet the same thing, you don’t have to see it dozens of times. Think about the nature of the prob­lem that this is solving.

My watch­phrase for the lat­ter quar­ter of 2009 and all of 2010 is “Less often, higher qual­ity”. I hope that as many of my Quiet Baby­lon posts as I can man­age will be of stock cal­iber and I’d like to put out at least one project that’s even bet­ter. But I think that this needs to apply to the flow work as well. The best feeds are the ones where I am delighted every time there is an update. I aspire to be one of those.

One of the best things that I ever did for my feel­ings about my work was to more care­fully dis­tin­guish between my stock and my flow and to dis­tin­guish between even types of flow (I didn’t know that was what they were called at the time). Do I link up my Tum­blr with my Twit­ter with my gReader share with Face­book with my blog? I find that the more I answer “no” to this ques­tion, the hap­pier I feel with the out­put of my work in any given arena, and the more that peo­ple who might be inter­ested in what I’m up to can pick and choose how much of the fire­hose they have to consume.

This has been an episode of “Tim responds to a com­ment and ends up pon­tif­i­cat­ing at length about his plans for the year” star­ring Tim as Tim.

Robin Sloan says:

My cur­rent stock/flow hero (besides A. Madri­gal) is Jonathan Har­ris. Just one photo every day. And each one is great.

And impor­tantly, as he wan­ders around & shares this flow of pho­tos, he’s work­ing on gen­er­a­tive art projects that end up being totally genre-defining and museum-worthy. Seri­ous stock.

And it was you, in fact, who con­vinced me to unlink my Twit­ter and Tum­blr, which was a fan­tas­tic idea. It freed me up to think about my Tum­blr as its own thing, not an adjunct to my Twit­ter flow.

Adam Rice says:

This sounds like the stuff that Ben Ham­mer­s­ley has been writ­ing about lately.

Sarah says:

I was think­ing about the same thing yes­ter­day, though not in eco­nomic terms, since I was the oppo­site of an eco­nom­ics major in col­lege. I was feel­ing a bit wor­ried about the con­stancy with which we’re all now butting up against the real-time state of our imme­di­ate (if vir­tual) sur­round­ings, and won­der­ing what impact this has on our abil­ity to be truly reflec­tive and to pro­duce writ­ing that rep­re­sents moments spent *out* of con­tact with that per­pet­ual flow. We not only need the time to have the real­iza­tions that come with dis­tance and reflec­tion, we also need time to exam­ine and artic­u­late them in terms that go beyond the stac­cato of twit­ter and tum­blr. I don’t gen­er­ally fall in the camp of peo­ple who express an urgent, woe­ful need to “unplug,” since I don’t like think­ing that the major­ity of my time (dur­ing which I’m “plugged in”) is some­how doing me a ter­ri­ble long-term dis­ser­vice. How­ever I do think we do our­selves a dis­ser­vice when we for­get to alter our lev­els of immer­sion in the real-time net­worked con­ver­sa­tions. It doesn’t have to hap­pen in a cabin in the woods but it’d be awfully sad if it stopped hap­pen­ing altogether.

[…] Sloan uses the eco­nomic con­cept of stock and flow as a metaphor for today’s media. Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily […]

TheChad says:

Great post. Your words are invalu­able. Find­ing the right bal­ance between stock and flow is key to being a suc­cess and relevant.

JtFaber says:

Great, pres­sure is off. I can del­e­gate my tweets to the intern and work on build­ing my… umm… thing, that I do…

Really nice post. Extremely rel­e­vant when it comes to indi­vid­u­als and small orgs. Although time-consuming (is it in fact cost-beneficial?), bal­anc­ing stock and flow is clearly a nec­es­sary evil in today’s busi­ness world. 

What’s also inter­est­ing is look­ing at orga­ni­za­tions who facil­i­tate and/or man­age stock and flow. The first suc­cess­ful dot­coms cre­ated busi­nesses out of “stock” – think Ama­zon. Twit­ter and Face­book made huge busi­nesses out of “flow”. Now that I think about it, didn’t Google do this twice – once with index­ing a grow­ing num­ber of web­pages, the sec­ond with YouTube? 

As we look for­ward, I won­der how many new busi­nesses will make stock out of flow – mag­a­zines from blog posts, Google/Bing index­ing Twit­ter feeds. I know this was just a metaphor but I won­der what’s next? The answer could make some­one rich.

Dan Conover says:

I have noth­ing elo­quent to add. I am your geek fan­boy. That’s all.

Betty Ann says:

I would add that in the world of flow and stock a hook (tweet­able, quotable, crisp head­line, or ? ) embed­ded in each stock entry gets it into flow.

Robin Sloan says:

Yes, totally! Design­ing for flow. Build­ing bridges between stock and flow.

Tim Maly says:

I’ve often thought that I’d like Matthew Bat­tles of HILOBROW to write the tweets pro­mot­ing all my posts. When he does see one worth pass­ing on, his sum­maries are gen­er­ally bet­ter than mine.

Saheli says:

BettyAnn, are you an edi­tor? Because that suc­cinctly sum­ma­rizes the secret of pro­duc­ing a great mag­a­zine that’s also a pop­u­lar magazine.

JMO says:

Thanks for this Robin. It really gets me think­ing about what I make and intake.

I often find myself in the space smack in the mid­dle: I cre­ate Flock. I write things. I don’t have the time or dis­ci­pline to focus and make things that are very durable. Nor do I have the time or dis­ci­pline to just pub­lish and make a con­stant Flow. I feel stuck with some­thing that is not good on any front. I write about 1,000 words once a week and noth­ing seems to stick after hit­ting publish.

On top of my day job, I do quite a bit of con­sum­ing other people’s Flow and Stock. I value learn­ing and I truly enjoy by daily sit-down with Google Reader. How do you cre­ate the bal­ance nec­es­sary to have light but con­stant Flow and solid Stock while still keep­ing up with everything?

Great piece and I agree, Alexis has got it all.
His mom.

Kate says:

Absolutely bril­liant Robin. Thank you, genius person.

Jay says:

When launch­ing my web design shop’s blog, we divided it along these exact lines. Lit­er­ally, divided it in half; short, ephemeral posts—i.e. flow—on one side, con­sid­ered, pol­ished, long-form posts—i.e. stock—on the other side.

[…] at Snark­mar­ket, Robin Sloan nails the impor­tant part of bal­anc­ing the “flow” of updates, tweets, links, and gen­eral social participation […]

[…] is prob­a­bly not going to push my stock/flow ratio in the right direc­tion, but I’m start­ing a tum­blr. It’s so odd! I am completely […]


The Snarkmatrix awaits your reply

Here’s an interesting article by Robin Sloan on “Stock and Flow“:

There are two kinds of quantities in the world. Stock is a sta­tic value: money in the bank, or trees in the for est. Flow is a rate of change: fif­teen dollars an hour, or three-thousand tooth picks a day. Easy. Too easy.

But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you pro duce that’s as inter­est ing in two months (or two years?) as it is today. It’s what peo ple dis­cover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, build ing fans over time.

Posted via web from ilan.el


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