Tag Archives: robin sloan

Flow vs stock – and how people consume news online

I’ve only just come across this post by Robin Sloan applying the economic concepts of flow and stock to online news:

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.

Sloan’s argument is that ‘flow’ – constant updates – is very much the focus of attention at the moment, but that ‘stock’ should not be neglected.

It’s a very appealing metaphor – not least because research suggests that users’ consumption of online news matches it. A previous study by Associated Press backs Sloan’s argument, finding that users were overwhelmed by constant updates but hungered for more depth. It recommended that publishers invest more resources in deeper reporting – in other words, in ‘stock’.

Pablo Boczkowski’s new book, News At Work, explores many of these issues too. In looking at how people consume news at work he identifies how users check the news online:

“The first visit [of the day] to an online news site is undertaken routinely in a double sense: each individual usually conducts this visit during the same part of the day and looks at news sites according to a navigation process that varies little from one day to the next …

“Subsequent visits differ from the initial visit in several dimensions. They take place at nonroutine times and intervals. They do not occur at fixed times of the day … but depend on the availability of downtime …

“These visits are often motivated by the need for a distraction or for more information after learning about an event … Subsequent visits … are not comprehensive, methodical, long, or marked by the strong presence of print[-originated] content. Instead they are limited, disorganised, brief and focused on breaking news or some other form of novel content.”

This is the focus on flow. However, it’s hard to tell whether that user behaviour might change if some of the context surrounding it changed. For example, Boczkowski’s focus is on consumption at work, where users are taking a quick break from what they should be doing. Elsewhere in the same chapter he identifies how many users avoid consuming news online outside of work because the computer reminds them of their work. Would this change with news consumption on more consumer-focused platforms such as mobile phones, tablets, web-enabled televisions and games consoles? Similarly, as the nature of work itself changes and more people work from home, will that change their behaviour? (Boczkowkski’s own findings suggest this is indeed the case for those people).

h/t Noah Brief.