Stocks and flows in online communication: another hat tip to Jerry Michalski

I always try to push information to where it can be most valuable. In practice, that often means moving from personal invitation-only spaces to shared public spaces.

In an essay called Too busy to blog? Count your keystrokes, I made the point that this strategy needn’t cost you more effort. What I’ve been calling the principle of keystroke conservation seems to stick in people’s heads.

Here’s another phrase that’s been stuck in my head since October: stocks and flows. That’s how Jerry Michalski, at the Social Computing Symposium, described the communication pattern that moves information from personal/transient to shared/persistent spaces.

When I use email to solicit responses back to a searchable/subscribable wiki, that’s just what I’m trying to do: convert flows into stocks.

Lee LeFever, whose company’s “paperworks” sketchcasts I recently applauded, wrote a series of items elaborating on Jerry’s notion of stocks and flows in online communication.

I would quibble slightly with Lee’s point that blogs are mainly about flow and wikis mainly stock. I think both can nicely combine aspects of both, and that their essential differences lie elsewhere.

The distinction between non-archived, non-shared interpersonal messaging (email, IM) and any kind of shared space (forum, wiki, blog) is much more stark. Some flows are inherently private and/or transient. Those can’t and shouldn’t become stocks. Other flows are not inherently private and/or transient. Those can, and almost always should, become stocks.


  1. It seems to me that the distinction between stocks and flows is mainly about how relevant in time the information is to the person, but the article seems to use the mechanisms of delivery for the important distinction. I think sending notifications about or subscribing to last years news isn’t a good ‘flow’. However, if a person recently becomes interested in travel to Hawaii, then last years news might actually be good candidate for ‘flow’, even though it’s in an archive (a ‘stock’).

    Another useful dimensions of information modelling is how much time and concentrated effort it takes to absorb the information (the attention cost).

    (The right information, to the right person, at the right time… argh!)

  2. “if a person recently becomes interested in travel to Hawaii, then last years news might actually be good candidate for ‘flow’”

    Sure. If somebody took the trouble to convert the flow of news into a stock, we can query it and turn it back into a flow.

    Flows that never become stocks are just lost, though. My local newspaper’s website works that way. The stocks exist, sort of, but nobody can get at them (lousy search, paywalled archive), so they produce no new flows. It’s sad.

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