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?