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?
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.
This is a good mental model, with a nice Anglo-Saxon poetic ring to it, for balancing one’s daily management. Nice.
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.”Frank Chimero says:
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.
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 STARBasti Hirsch ッ says:
“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.
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. Kottke.org, 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.
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 🙂Alexis Madrigal says:
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.
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.
(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.)Basti Hirsch ッ says:
“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.Nathan Bowers says:
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”.
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.
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.Alexis Madrigal says:
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…Jason Robinson says:
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.
Yes, totally! Designing for flow. Building bridges between stock and flow.
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?Elizabeth Madrigal says:
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 […]
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.