Introduction to Stocks and Flows (3 of 3): Back to Basics

In the first section of this series, I provided an introduction to stocks and flows in online communication. In the second section, I applied these terms to weblogs, wikis and RSS.

In this final section of the series, I'm circling back to the basics of stocks and flows to help define the key points about each term in the context of more traditional websites.

Flow Basics:

The key point about flow and online communication is ongoing engagement. When a person engages in a flow, their attention is captured in small increments as communication flows by them over time. These short bursts of information can enable a person to manage a large number of communication resources at once. People have quickly learned to manage many forms of flow everyday on the phone, instant messenger, email, newsreader, etc. A real-world conversation is perhaps the essence of flow.

The question is: How does flow engage a web site visitor? What can individuals and companies do to create a web site with an engaging flow?

First, consider the appearance and functionality of most business web sites. The majority change little over time, with small updates occurring on a regular schedule. Many are online brochures with finely tuned marketing messages. When you visit these sites, do you look forward to your next visit? Do you expect to learn something new the next time you stop by? Do you feel a personal connection? The answer is likely no, because these sites do not flow, they do not engage readers.

Historically, flow was hard to achieve because it was difficult to update and manage a website. Flow was expensive. Now that websites have become much easier to update and manage for the non-technical, they are becoming more flow-enabled. Thanks to new tools and technologies, almost any website can become a flow for very little money.

Weblogs and discussion forums are two tools that can enable flow. Weblogs are useful in creating flows because they provide an ongoing resource for timely and pertinent commentary from an individual or small group. Online discussion forums enable flow by providing a resource that promotes ongoing conversation between visitors. In both of these cases, these tools allow the web site to move from being a static resource to a dynamic one, creating a flow of information that engages readers with each visit.

Another important point to consider regarding flows is notification. At the beginning of this section, I noted that people have learned to manage multiple flows at once as information flows to them. To maximize flows from your web site, consider using notification systems like RSS or email to give your readers the ability to be notified as your website changes. These notifications can be an essential tool for keeping readers engaged by making it easy for them to manage the flow in short and incremental pieces over time.

Stock Basics:

Stock represents that basic foundation of most web sites. A vast majority of sites are stock resources by default - they are static and archived for reference and accessibility. Stock, unlike flow, is not something that web site owners would implement- it is usually already there.

However, as we've seen in previous sections, I argue that it is the combination of stocks and flows that can maximize value. Considering stocks in terms of how they interact with flows reveals a new side of stocks. Combined with flows, we see stocks becoming a repository of large amounts of information created by flows. Stock is where the flows go to retire - they provide a historical record of a flow.

The question is: How can we ensure that flows are being stocked effectively? What makes a good stock?

Websites that flow will find that the management of stocks becomes very important over time. As the flows create new information, the stocks grow to become a rich, but often unwieldy resource. For this reason, website owners should pay particular attention to how stocks are being archived for reference. Easily accessible stocks compliment engaging flows.

Without stock, flows would disappear into the ether, never to be referenced again. Luckily, we have search engines, which are perhaps the most valuable tool for making online stocks accessible. Without search engines, the great stock of the web would be practically inaccessible. Google is an incredibly powerful resource for accessing stocks. As your stocks grow, consider using a search engine to help visitors access the stocks on your site.

Further, usable design, intuitive navigation, and the overall structure of your website can contribute greatly to the accessibility of your stocks. You might ask yourself: Are the stocks organized intuitively? Can visitors search the stocks productively? What are visitors looking for? Why aren't they finding it? Do the stocks have a shelflife? Should they expire and become inaccessible at some point?

While stocks will always be a part of the web, they will become larger and more difficult to manage as more websites flow.

Stocks and Flows in Other Forms:

As you're thinking about stocks and flows, note that the concept applies to many forms of media. As Jerry pointed out to me, television is a perfect example. TV is a flow; it is timely, engaging and people watch commercials because they are engaged in the programming flow. Now that TiVo and other DVRs are becoming popular, they are turning TV into a stock- something that is static and accessible at any time. The disruptive nature of TiVo is related to its ability to transform TV from being a flow to a stock. TV broadcasters cannot make money if TV becomes a stock, so the industry is fighting to keep TV a flow. This is just one example of how stocks and flows can be applied to a wide variety of resources.


I hope that this series has provided you with a new lens through which you can describe and consider online communication tools and resources. More than anything, my intention was to introduce something new that we can share as a community. I hope that you will find productive uses of these terms now and in the future. In posting these entries, I also hope to start a discussion where others will provide their perspectives and challenge my assertions regarding these terms. Please feel free to use the comments on the entries, email me, or post on your own site.

I owe credit and many thanks to Jerry Michalski, who first introduced me to these terms and helped me form these thoughts. Thank you!