Toxic Heritage

Collaborative research

Dirty Laundry – writing in 280 characters

By on November 3, 2020

In the face of pandemic travel restrictions, the organizers of the CHAT (Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory) annual conference decided to go virtual. But their pivot wasn’t just the usual mix of online recorded papers, PowerPoints, and virtual conversations. Instead they created a “festival-style weeklong celebration” including a soundstage, a silent disco, social events like PubChat, and a virtual exhibit of #festivalspast material and visual culture. All of these elements combined to produce an innovative and inspiring “FestivalChat2020” with over 60 contributions from 13 countries on 9 platforms over 8 days, and it was all free.

Festival CHAT website header

Our Toxic Heritage project participated in the “Blue Bird Sessions” where we were challenged to present research in 15 Tweets or less with no more than 280 characters per Tweet. And that includes punctuation and spaces. For the typical over-verbalizing academic, the challenge was daunting but intriguing. How to capture the essence of the research without losing the nuance and context that makes for rich interpretation?

Our offering was “Dirty Laundry” and it was the first time we shared the preliminary results of our on-going Social and Environmental History of Dry Cleaning in Indianapolis research. The process of producing 15 threaded Tweets was, in many ways, like writing an article or any other research presentation. What were our key findings? What evidence best supports those results? What did we want the audience to know? As researchers investigating social justice issues, we also considered how we could share our research in a way that would lead to action, or at least changed attitudes. What did we want our audience to understand and even do?

The Blue Bird Session required not just being concise but working in new ways. It became clear that the argument would be most effective if driven visually, and we had rich historical and contemporary images to work with. It also required a disciplined storyboarding process. The original 29 Tweets of the first draft told a much more complex story, but also went down numerous divergent paths. Leaving 14 Tweets on the virtual cutting room floor was painful, but it created a tighter, more compelling narrative.

Finally, the experience of participating in an international conference via Twitter was amazingly rewarding for all the reasons we share our work in “normal” times. We connected with scholars in Canada, the UK, Australia, and even one researcher an hour south of Indianapolis who we didn’t know but were introduced to by a colleague in Michigan – all via Twitter replies and messages. Our audience not only liked and retweeted posts, but suggested readings and projects that could inform our research. One person tagging the session wrote, “Wow guys it turns out dry cleaning is absolutely terrible for the planet. How did I not know this? Did you know this?”

Still much more to learn about Dirty Laundry, but the power of 15 Tweets and the creativity of people to imagine a virtual intellectual festival has been an unexpected and delightful lesson. Thanks #FestivalCHAT2020!