#NotDeadYet: Slate Sparks An Awesome Online Discussion of Life, Medicine, and Public Health

Last Thursday Slate, a daily web magazine, kicked off a series on life expectancy.  I highly recommend taking the time to read the articles, which cover everything from notable public health advances to improving maternal/child health outcomes.  I was very pleased to see many public health organizations sharing these articles with their followers.

While the content was enough to draw me in, I was particularly intrigued by the online dialogue that was sparked by this series.  Over the past week, my Twitter feed has been filled with colleagues participating in the discussion using the hashtag #NotDeadYet.  In the series' first post, "Why Are You Not Dead Yet?", Laura Helmuth explores why life expectancy has doubled in the past 150 years.  At the end of the post, Laura asked readers to send their #NotDeadYet survival stories to Slate's twitter or email accounts.  A selection of the submitted stories ran today to wrap up the week-long series on life expectancy.

With so many newspapers and blogs (mine included) heavily depending on the comment section to initiate discussion, I was intrigued by the idea of starting an accompanying Twitter hashtag thread.  Impressed by the high participation rate just on my own feed, I reached out to Laura Helmuth to gather more information about her dialogue with readers.  She was very gracious to respond to my questions during what I assume has been a very busy week with the series!    

She shared that Slate received more than 200 emails from people sharing their stories (some of them quite elaborate). They also received about 800 responses on Twitter.  In terms of story content:

  • About a quarter of the emails concerned childbirth- women who would have died giving birth and people who would have died when they were born. 
  • Many of the Twitter messages were also about childbirth, including a lot of men who tweeted that they would be childless widowers right now if it were not for modern medicine. 
  • Slate also heard from a lot of people who survived a burst appendix. Lots of people were saved from nasty infections by antibiotics. And some had gruesome accidents that were patched up in surgery. Lots of people have had heart surgery. Many people credited their anti-depressants for keeping them alive. A surprising number mentioned that they were treated with antivenins for snakebite! 

Laura noted that this hashtag thread was especially heartwarming because "people were taking a moment to share their scariest stories and express gratitude that they’re ALIVE".  She also said that "it’s a great reminder that so many of the people we know would be dead if it weren’t for treatments we sometimes take for granted". A big thank you to Laura for sharing these responses and her reactions!

After putting this post together, I have two messages- one about the content and one about the strategy that Slate used for communicating this story.  
  • (1) It is important to look back and inventory the medical and public health advances that we take for granted.  Last year I wrote about the wonderful Frontline documentary, "The Vaccine War".  When discussing fears of vaccination and the decrease in childhood vaccination rates, the documentary noted that this new generation of parents are too young to know the devastating effects of vaccine-preventable diseases like polio.  One interviewee used a term that I really like- "Community Recollection".  As Community Recollection of these diseases disappears, we can become complacent.  We are seeing the devastating results of this complacency with outbreaks of preventable disease (for example the outbreak of Measles just a few weeks ago in Texas). 
  • (2) We in public health should take note and learn from the strategies that Slate has used to engage readers.  We are always looking for ways to initiate conversation beyond the articles we publish or the classes we teach or the webinars or twitterchats that we facilitate.  A few observations:
    • The hashtag thread allowed them to take the discussion beyond the comment section onto Twitter.  
    • Hashtags are easily searchable, so new participants could quickly be gained that did not originally follow or read the magazine.  
    • The hashtag #NotDeadYet was innovative and "catchy" not boring like #PublicHealthAdvances.  
    • Readers also had an incentive to share their stories, since Slate was selecting the top 50 to wrap up the series.   
I'd love to hear from my readers!
  • Did you read the Slate life expectancy series?  Reactions to share?
  • Have you tried similar strategies to engage readers with the content that you distribute?  Success stories or lessons learned to share?


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