The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Stock and flow

I was an economics major in college, and I’ve been grateful ever since for a few key concepts those courses drilled into me: things like opportunity cost, sunk cost, and marginal cost. I think about this stuff all the time in my everyday life. I think about the sunk cost of waiting for a slow elevator; I think about the marginal cost of making myself another sandwich.

I think most of all about the concept of stock and flow.

Do you know about this? It couldn’t be simpler. 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 a useful metaphor for media in the 21st century. 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 reminds people 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.

Flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but I think we neglect stock at our 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.

I’m not saying you should ignore flow! This is no time to hole up and work in isolation, emerging after years with your work in hand. Everybody will go: huh? Who are you? And even if they don’t—even if your exquisite opus 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 (get ready for it!) opportunity cost. You’ll have to find those fans all over again next time you emerge from your cave.

Here’s a case study. My pal Alexis Madrigal has got the stock/flow balance down. On one end of the spectrum, he’s a Twitter natural and a fast-paced writer. Madrigal’s got mad flow; you plug in, and you get a steady stream of interesting stuff. But on the other end of the spectrum—and man, this is just so important—he’s written a deep, nuanced history of green tech in America. This is 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, while stock sticks around. Stock is capital. Stock is protein.

And the real magic trick 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. The hybrid strategy.

So, I was thinking about stock and flow just now while I was standing in my kitchen doing the dishes, and I thought, wait, there are all these super-successful artists and media people today who don’t think about flow at all. Like, Wes Anderson? Come on. He’s all stock. And he seems to be doing okay.

But I think the secret is that somebody else does his flow for him. I mean, what are PR and advertising but flow, bought and paid for? Rewind history and put Wes Anderson on his own—proprietor of an extremely symmetrical YouTube channel—and I don’t think you get the same result, not if it’s one video every three years.

So, if you’re in the position to have somebody else handle your flow while you tend to your stock: great. 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 terminology, because it’s been echoing in my head since my first microeconomics course. Today, whenever I put my hands on the keyboard, I’m asking myself: Is this stock? Is this flow? How’s my mix? Do I have enough of both?


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.

I prefer hustle and flow.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

“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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

Absolutely brilliant Robin. Thank you, genius person.

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.

Coming late to this, feasting on the flow of commentary and its glimmers of great stock beyond. (And thanks for the h/t, Tim—I love tweeting your posts. But my Twitter stream may be even harder to find than Robin’s ;-])

But I wonder about the analogy a little bit. Because the stock we’re talking about here isn’t exactly like the economist’s stock, is it? I mean, in economics, flow can deplete stock (or add to it, if you’re really lucky). But it seems like our stock kind of feeds on flow—out- as well as in-. Without flow it dies, or fails to thrive, goes dark. If you’ve got your flow on, your stock only grows. And flow’s not a matter of simple exchange, but current, of circuitry. Currency! Flow’s about moving it on down the line.

You probably know where I’m going with this: “Increase comes to a gift when it moves from second to third party,” writes Lewis Hyde, “not in the simpler passage from first to second. The increase begins when the gift has passed through someone…. Capital earns profit… but gifts that remain gifts do not earn profit, they give increase.”

It’s like particle and wave, maybe. Increase follows the gift—wavelike, it rides the flow, lighting up everyone’s stock as it goes.

Stow is flow that’s been stocked.

Kirstin Butler says…

Hi Robin,

In just one blog post you defined the heuristic (yup, I wrote that) I’ve been trying to figure out for the last few months. This is proving to be such a difficult balance for me to strike creatively–mostly because the respective returns on stock and flow–dog years vs. immediate–are so different. I find the connection, and dialogue, and real-time feedback around flow to be really addictive.

I wonder whether there’s a lifelog application that could capture which state you’re in at various points, so that you could review a receipt at the end of the day and then make adjustments.

Thanks so much for this-

p.s. I thought the blog was a great flow compliment to the stock that is Where the Wild Things Are.

Very powerful concepts. You blended economics, about which I know little, with writing, which I’ve been practicing for 36+ years. By doing so, not only did you make economic concepts understandable to me, but palpable. Thank you.

Spot on. I just adapted the editorial style of my blog to improve my “stock.” Instead of just constantly using a flow of cool stuff to attract page views, I’m concentrating more on stories and people. I think these types of posts automatically have a longer tail.

I’m also packaging each weeks posts as “issues” so that even the smaller pieces fit into a type of stock.

Thank you so much for giving me language to explore this idea further!

This is a great way to look at categorizing info, Robin. I think that the best stock is presented in context, in a format where the visual structure adds to the context in the stock. e.g. and many of the other examples on protovis.
There’s one more aspect to this that we’ve been working on at — how to develop a structure for flow & stock so that a local community can use both in an integrated manner to take action to solve local problems.
We’re launching a local health site called HealthCommons next month in which we’re integrating social media with journalism in a way that I hope will give the local community the tools to improve community health.

I think I love you. For your mind, of course.

I was just thinking that even more fundamental than your stock:flow ratio is your creation:consumption ratio. I spend so much time consuming information and art these days, but not enough time giving back.

If you had a donate button on this post, I would give 20 bucks right now.

I only heard a verbal summary of it from my friend David ( and I was already using “stock and flow” in client meetings.

BIG thank you.

hi Robin, I really like the concept of a stock/flow balance. I have two comments on that: 1) it applies not only to production, but also to consumption of content: you need both an intake of flow, and some serious stock; 2) flow can sometimes become stock. have you ever found a new blog and read it from “now” until its beginning, treating it like a one big book? with a good blog, the experience is one of dealing with some serious stock content. Having said that, there’s a limit, I think, to how granular flow can be and still be able to transform into stock – a years worth of twitter stream won’t become stock no matter what (unless you’re a haiku poet). Thanks for this inspiration!

Hate to be a nitpicker, but…
While I agree that the relationship between the two things is as you describe, one of the words (actually the concept behind the word) doesn’t work.

The output on twitter and facebook to me much more like a “stream”. The definition that began the piece: “Flow is a rate of change” doesn’t fit. A twitter stream as a whole has no denominator, if you will.

Using the stream analogy, twitter output is like the water in the stream. There is a quantity of water that passes by, and the total quantity depends on the rate of flow. But the “rate” is not the stream! The scientist in me made me write this post I think. And the late hour. 😉

Try an electrical analogy. Is the twitter and facebook “stream” measured in amperes, or in coulombs? Ask your favorite physicist. I’m not sure, but I think I vote for coulombs.

Hi Robin, Thought you might be interested in this Globe&Mail article, “Information Rich and Attention Poor” published last fall, that also describes the metaphor of stock and flow.

Here’s the relevant p’graph:
Knowledge is evolving from a “stock” to a “flow.” Stock and flow – for example, wealth and income – are concepts familiar to accountants and economists. A stock of knowledge may be thought of as a quasi-permanent repository – such as a book or an entire library – whereas the flow is the process of developing the knowledge. The old Encyclopedia Britannica was quintessentially a stock; Wikipedia is the paradigmatic example of flow. Obviously, a stock of knowledge is rarely permanent; it depreciates like any other form of capital. But electronic information technology is profoundly changing the rate of depreciation. By analogy with the 24-hour news cycle (which was an early consequence of the growing abundance of video bandwidth as cable television replaced scarce over-the-air frequencies), there is now the equivalent of a 24-hour knowledge cycle – “late-breaking knowledge,” as it were. Knowledge is becoming more like a river than a lake, more and more dominated by the flow than by the stock. What is driving this?

Then Nicholson goes on to describe the possible (and awesome) drivers behind WHY knowledge has evolved from stock to flow. You say it’s for obvious reasons, but I think the reasons are still quite fascinating and worthwhile.

(It is an excerpt from a much longer speech he gave at the Fiesole Retreat in Glasgow, Scotland, July ‘09.)

Interesting stuff!
lemme know your thoughts,
– christie

Jay says…

nice post!! i would like to add that it takes time and patience to develop the ‘stock’ whereas to develop the ‘flow’ you can start anytime. So one should start working on ‘stock’ asap.
I am no economist,so am not sure you’ll agree, but this is what my conclusion is.

Just learned about flow and stock from Dennis Callahan at PodCamp 5. After doing a search I found this post which I absolutely love. It makes so much sense and certainly helps put much of the social media revolution into perspective for me. Thanks!

Hey, just wanted to comment about how much this post inspired me to reflect on my own inner conflicts with media and life.

I actually wrote about it on my blog in details (1700+ words) and I added my own views to it. Check it out below, see whether or not I’m onto something or just full of crap. And btw, yes this does sound like a shameless self-promotion but…

–> Stock & Flow: The Hard Part’s The Switch

Jessica says…

I love this so much. You should know that this idea is still making the conference circuit. I heard about it at the recent Confab content strategy conference. A really helpful analogy – thanks for writing it up so thoughtfully!

Daniel says…

Briliant, thanks. I like the cornerstone content concept that Copyblogger put together. So it’s the stock, and then the flow is essential. Value content over time.

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