If you took a look at Twitter anytime in the past week, you might have noticed a debate around one of the least popular emoji in the standard Unicode character set; the “aerial tramway.”
For the unfamiliar, these tramways are a bit like a car that’s suspended in midair, and travels via cable. This particular emoji (red if you’re on Twitter, or yellow if you’re using Apple’s iMessage) is the smaller, more unassuming cousin to other emoji like the mountain cableway and the suspension railway, and while those emoji are near the bottom of the list in terms of popularity, the tramway had the dishonor of being the very least used on Twitter.
With 2,823 standard emoji available — including variations for skin tone and gender — coming in last is something of a feat. But according to @leastUsedEmoji, a bot that scrapes real-time data from emojitracker.com, the poor little tramway was dead last for 11 weeks straight. But since everyone loves an underdog story, and a lot of people really, really love transportation, the fortunes of this miniature method of conveyance were about to turn.
During the latter bit of those eleven weeks, the tramway became a bit of a hero among a number of public transportation advocates. The campaign to save the tramway emoji from its ignominious fate really took off when the 100,000 members of New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens — a Facebook group dedicated to transportation memes — caught wind of the situation. Dozens of NUMTOTs, as the members call themselves, spammed Twitter with strings of the lone gondola to try to bring it up from its spot in last place.
“Public transit must be defended at all costs,” said one. Others agreed with the sentiment of transit solidarity. “An attack on one is an attack on all,” as another member put it.
It worked. After 77 days, the tram had its last-place position usurped by the “input symbol for latin capital letters.”
Of course, while transportation nerds were the biggest reason that the tram got elevated out of last place, they’re not the only reason. “There’s always been someone trying to ‘help out’ whatever the most-unused emoji was at the time,” said Matthew Rothenberg, who created Emojitracker, the site that scrapes Twitter’s most- and least-used emoji. “People love an underdog.”
For some, this might take the form of people spamming their Twitter feeds with dozens of tiny tramways — for others, it might involve creating a bot that automatically tweets out the platform’s least-used symbols to “save” them.
“People love an underdog”
Then there’s the larger question about why certain emoji end up at the bottom in the first place. The emoji at the top of the list — mostly faces, hearts, and hand gestures — tend to express emotion, and can be easily squeezed into any conversation. But for the most part, the least-used emoji are either super niche, like the gondola or the symbol for “non-potable water.” Others at the bottom are inexplicably broad, like the symbol for the Roman alphabet that’s languished in last place for the past few days. It makes sense that wiggling these symbols into a text conversation or tweet might be a challenge — especially if you’re not a skier, a linguist, or particularly worried about your water supply.
While the alphabet emoji has also earned a bit of pity on its descent to the bottom, so far, it hasn’t inspired the same affection and emoji activism as the tramway — which at the very least, can be anthropomorphized more easily than the concept of Roman letters. As one NUMTOT member said, the group is rife with jokes that some forms of transit are “living creatures that deserve love.” Rothenberg agrees, saying that the lonely little tramway was “pretty darn cute.”