Social Media

Why do we even have the ‘Aerial tramway’ emoji?


Conrad Duncan, Journalist

The internet loves an underdog. Although the world-wide-web is used by just about everyone these days, its natural citizens remain the underappreciated of the world. No truer is this than on social media, where users will gain fame by airing their embarrassments, physical struggles, and mental health histories.

The other thing the internet loves is its power to influence, from benign acts of corporate sabotage (see: the Christmas no.1 campaigns of the late-00s) to active attempts to manipulate democratic elections. The ability to influence national or global events is part of what makes it so addictive, allowing us to make our voices heard and feel, even in insignificant ways, like we can make a difference. If you wanted a perfect case study of users’ insatiable desire to influence events, here’s the example of the Least Used Emoji Bot and more specifically the ‘Aerial tramway’.

In July 2013, Matthew Rothenberg set up Emojitracker, a website which tracks real-time emoji use on Twitter. Five years later, in February this year, Jeremy Schmidt set up a Twitter bot to track and record the least used emoji on the website. There was no serious reason for the project, Schmidt says he just wanted people to know which one it was, but Least Used Emoji Bot (@leastUsedEmoji) quickly gained a cult-following, devoted to elevating the most unpopular icons.

Earlier this month, the account gained online fame when the ‘Aerial tramway’ emoji found itself on the bottom spot for 77 days. From day 60 onwards, a campaign attempted to artificially boost its profile with followers repeatedly posting the emoji. On July 22, the campaign succeeded and ‘Aerial tramway’ was replaced by ‘Input symbol for latin capital letters’ as the least popular emoji. However, the campaign’s success left one question – why do we even have the ‘Aerial tramway’ emoji?

How emojis are made

The process for how emojis are approved leaves more questions than answers. The emoji keyboard began as a small set of icons created by Japanese designer Shigetaka Kurita in the mid-90s, designed to help people communicate emotion and tone in emails. Now, new emojis are decided by the Unicode Consortium, an organisation which helps set specifications for software that create universal standards for computers. In short, they’re the reason why emojis will look the same, or at least similar, on different phones in different countries.

The Consortium meets regularly to discuss potential additions to the emoji keyboard, which can be submitted by anyone so long as they can explain why its needed. However, there is a strict set of guidelines for accepting new emojis. Approved icons are permanent and new additions are spaced-out each year to allow technology to keep pace; emojis take up a lot more phone memory than letters. Proposals must provide evidence that an addition is original (e.g. a red hat isn’t needed alongside the current blue hat icon), visually distinctive, and will be used frequently.

The criterion doesn’t help the case for the ‘Aerial tramway’. The icon clearly represents a distinctive object, but does it convey something significantly different from the ‘Mountain cableway’ emoji? As for frequency of use, its lack of success on Twitter shows the public do not feel the need for it as much as its creators did.

Big in Japan

However, the answer to why we have the ‘Aerial tramway’ may be found in the origins of the emoji keyboard. ‘Aerial tramway’ was approved as part of Unicode 6.0 in 2010, introducing new characters for compatibility with emojis which were already being used in Japan. As emojis were invented in that country, there are naturally many Japanese-specific icons incorporated into the keyboard. Obvious ones include Mt Fuji and sushi emojis, but there are also emojis for dango (a sweet dumpling) and oni (a red-faced demon in Japanese folklore). The prevalence of Japanese symbols has inspired other countries to lobby for their own culture to be represented in the keyboard.

Although there are relatively few aerial tramways in the western world, there are 72 in Japan, with 68 operational all-year round. The prevalence of aerial tramways is so great that there is even a Wikipedia page for ‘List of aerial lifts in Japan’. So while the ‘Aerial tramway’ may seem like an obscure choice of emoji, its use in Japan may be much greater. This appears to be the most sensible explanation for why the ‘Aerial tramway’ exists, even if current demand shows that it doesn’t have much to offer to the rest of the world. It was lucky by getting in early and because of Unicode rules, it may never have to leave.

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