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Introduction to Stocks and Flows (2 of 3): Weblogs, Wikis and RSS

In the first section of this series, I provided a basic introduction to the terms "stock" and "flow" in the context of online communication. In this section, I'll apply these terms to technologies that are quickly becoming standards on the web: weblogs, wikis and RSS.

Weblogs and wikis have recently created considerable buzz in the online world. These tools have made it easy for individuals to publish their thoughts and words to the web, which is having a profound effect on the way we use websites. Similarly, RSS is shaping the way we keep up with constantly changing website content.

By looking at these technologies in terms of stocks and flows, we'll see examples how each tool differs in terms of purpose, value and usage.

Weblogs:

First let's look at weblogs, which I will argue are predominantly flow resources. Weblogs are websites that are easy to update and organized to display the most recent posts at the top of the page. Most weblogs are individually authored and used to provide timely and pertinent commentary on a regular basis. Being websites at heart, it would be easy to call weblogs a stock resource- the information (once posted) is basically static and archived for reference.

However, within the context of how most weblogs are used, it becomes apparent that they are more flow than stock. Timeliness is the key factor in this argument. Weblogs engage readers in a flow of communication where the value of the message is linked to its context. A weblog post is most pertinent and applicable at the time it is posted. Once a post is made to a weblog, the information has a shelf-life and often begins losing pertinence and value over time. For this reason, weblogs are best viewed as flows - a resource that is timely and engaging.

The flow of weblogs becomes even more apparent when you look at weblogs and webloggers as news sources. Do you read old newspapers? Do you like to watch yesterday's news programming? Not likely, because the news is most valuable when it is presented, when it is in a state of flow. Once the news has flowed, it becomes history. Weblogs are more valuable as a news source than a historical reference, so their value is linked to the flow of timely information they enable.

Could it be that the biggest difference between weblogs and traditional websites is that weblogs enable flow?

Weblogs and RSS:

We cannot mention the flow of weblogs without mentioning RSS. Thanks to RSS, a person can visit a web site and subscribe to an RSS feed, which ensures that they are notified the next time the website is updated. These notifications flow to the reader through a tool called an RSS reader, or newsreader.

RSS is important in the weblog world because it enables webloggers to keep up with many, many weblogs at once. In this way, RSS is the ultimate flow enabler. Using a news reader and RSS subscriptions, webloggers have the ability to engage in more flows than ever before, which helps news and information spread very quickly in the weblog world because everyone is engaging in the flow. RSS is jet fuel for flow.

While RSS became popular among webloggers, it is quickly becoming a standard for many other websites. By adding an RSS feed, traditional websites can move from being stock resources to flows- notifying readers as the site is updated. More on RSS here

Wikis:

Now, let's look at wikis, which I will argue are stock resources. A wiki is a web site that is used by a group to collaborate and accumulate related information. All users of a wiki have the ability to add new pages and information to the wiki. (see Wikipedia). The information in a wiki is not usually organized by time or author; it is organized according to the needs of the users, who may choose to organize the wiki similar to a traditional website.

A wiki is a stock because it is organized for reference, not timely engagement. The value of the wiki comes from its ability to archive and organize information, as opposed to engaging readers in a time-sensitive flow of information. You don't engage in a wiki, you reference it and therefore it is a stock.

Weblogs and Wikis Together:

As I mentioned in the first section of this series, using stocks and flows together can create synergy. I can see how this may be the case with weblogs and wikis.

The weblog community creates an amazing amount of information on a daily basis, information that is spread across thousands of weblogs, flowing between webloggers via RSS.

While most weblogs automatically archive (stock) weblog posts, it is challenging to archive and organize posts from multiple weblogs in an online location not organized by time or author.

As information flows through the weblog world, the need arises to stock this independently-produced information in an easy-to-organize format that can be shared by a group as an online reference resource. Wikis can fill this need.

Because wikis are very easy to update and organize, they can be a perfect tool for stocking the information produced by the weblog world. As weblogs flow, wikis can be used to pluck out pertinent information and organize it for easy reference. Wikis stock the weblog world's flow.

Next Section:

As we've seen, when applied to specific tools and situations, the terms stock and flow provide us a new lens through which we can view online communication.

In the next section (to be posted on April 7th), we'll circle back to the basics and make the case for stocks and flows- where is the value? How/when should they be used? Further we'll talk about how these terms can be applied to all sorts of media and then wrap up this series with some parting words.

Next: Back to Basics