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Stock & Flow: The Ideal Writing Mix for Your Online Content

[ via Robin Sloane, Snark Market ]

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, and marginal cost. I think about this stuff all the time in my everyday life. 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. But 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, 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?

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