Twitter’s move to 280 Characters and the “Fat Pants Theory” of fixing the wrong thing

Twitter officially announced its move to 280 characters per tweet this week and generally speaking, people were a tad annoyed more about what they didn’t get than what they got:


The edit button issue is part of a larger problem: Organizations that don’t listen to their users. One of the biggest pushes on this blog and in these books is the idea of putting your audience’s needs front and center when you ply your trade. Some people on Twitter made that concern clear:


The second issue is that while Twitter is telling people that very few tweets reached the 280 character mark, it doesn’t mean they won’t. When Twitter first rolled this out, we noted this issue as the “bigger house” approach to having too much stuff. Apparently, we’re not alone in that thought:


In rethinking this, however, the house thing isn’t entirely accurate, in that more space can lead to more stuff, but it’s not necessarily the worst thing on Earth. A more accurate “Filak-ism” might be the “Fat Pants Theory.” Here’s how it works:

  1. Let’s say I’m wearing jeans that are Size X and they fit fine, I’m eating well and the pants feel good.
  2. I start working out less because I’m lazy and I start eating more of my meals out of the vending machine at work and Taco Bell on my way home from work, thus my pants start feeling tighter and tighter. I’m uncomfortable in my pants.
  3. I solve the problem by buying larger pants. I now have jeans that fit me fine.

I know I have pants of various waistband sizes at home because of the “Fat Pants Theory,” even though I also know that buying new pants doesn’t solve the underlying problem: I need to get off my ass, work out more and eat better food. If I don’t do this, not only will those earlier pants fail to ever fit me again, but I’ll eventually grow out of these pants and the cycle will continue.

Twitter is doing exactly this: Instead of forcing people to learn how to improve writing, clarity and focus, they simply gave them larger pants and said, “Enjoy eating lard while you lay on the couch watching ‘Stranger Things.'” As journalists, the temptation to let a few of those tweets slide toward 150, 160 and 170 characters doesn’t seem like a big deal, just like that extra bag of chips or that extra Burrito Supreme doesn’t really hurt at first. In the end, however, we’ll eventually be begging for 560 characters if we aren’t careful.

Since it’s here and we aren’t going to get rid of it, consider the following issues when deciding to tweet under this new level of textual freedom:

  • Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should: The old Filak-ism rears its ugly head here again, with the idea that extra space means extra responsibility, not just extra freedom. Some organizations clearly got that idea when they posted their response to this change in restrictions:
    Make sure that whatever you put into your tweet goes to the core of the primary point you are trying to get across and also that you remain focused on what the audience needs.
  • Edit anyway: One of the benefits of having a character limit was that it forced Twitter users to think and edit. The economy of the format meant you needed to swap out terms like “sustained injuries” for terms like “was hurt.” If you felt you needed the term “injuries” or “sustained,” you had to find ways to trim characters in other areas. It forced people to tighten their tweets. During that process, we were able to make sure that we had words spelled properly or that we had the precise message we wanted to send.

    Here’s a great look at how 280 can become 140 if we just focus on the writing:

  • Use this opportunity to fix some problems: As much bad as this change can do, you can use it to do some real good. First, one of the key, lame excuses for poor texting behavior was the character limit. People used “text speak” and annoying abbreviations, arguing that it was due to the restrictions of twitter. Thus you got this:

    OK, Twitter just doubled your space. Time to use actual words and complete sentences. U R able 2 wrt w/o BS abbr. so ppl w/brains can C U have 1 2.

    Second, a lot of social media policies were developed in a hurry because companies and organizations knew they needed one, even though nobody making the policy really knew what the policies should be. In some cases, these rules are arcane and in other cases, they never made sense. A number of places are considering changes in their policies to meet the opportunities of the new 280-character limit:

    Take this opportunity to weasel your way into the conversation and help set some logical boundaries and remove pointless restrictions. This rare policy shift will force leadership to reassess the rules on a larger level, so don’t miss this chance to get into the mix and help improve social media where you work.


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