Astrology’s Web Boom Was Always In the Stars

Posted January 1, 2018 4:43 p.m. EST

I’m a Gemini, so I’m of two minds about the fact that astrology is suddenly trendy again. My curmudgeonly twin points out that astrology is fake. But my open-minded twin just downloaded a new horoscope app that solicited a few biographical details, indexed them with real-time NASA data, and then advised me to “get wasted and do something bad.” So who am I to argue with the wisdom of the universe?

That app is called Co-Star Astrology, and it’s one of a suite of new internet products rebranding the Zodiac for the digital set. Seemingly every cool-girl online brand — including Lenny, Bustle, Broadly, Girlboss and The Cut — features its own astrology column.

An algorithm-powered subscription service, The Daily Hunch, offers personalized packages starting at $4.99 a month. Zodiac sign memes dominate Twitter, where popular accounts like @astrology serve “aesthetically pleasing astrology posts” and @poetastrologers rewrites horoscopes with literary flair. And a new set of internet-famous gurus are on the rise. Chani Nicholas — a kind of social-justice astrologer — has amassed a following with her chicly appointed newsletter, Twitter feed of self-help one-liners, and Instagram account where she shares empathic memes.

As astrology has caught on, justifications for its rise have swirled. Maybe young people are turning away from religion, and woo woo spirituality is filling the gap. Or maybe the unpredictable results of the last election have encouraged us to throw out traditional scientific methods and look to the stars.

But I think the astrology boomlet owes as much to the dynamics of the modern internet as it does to any sort of cosmic significance about the millennial’s place in the universe. Astrology checks several boxes for viral-happy content: It provides an easy framework for endlessly personalized material, targets women and accesses ‘90s nostalgia. It’s the cosmic BuzzFeed quiz.

Horoscopes have always been tailored to their audiences. Newspaper astrology columns used to offer different advice in papers catering to working- and middle-class readers, with middle-class horoscopes recommending spending more money, traveling more, and focusing more on their careers. (Both versions were feminized, encouraging readers to nurture others and avoid confrontation.) But these new online products advance the game by offering seemingly endless customizations.

Co-Star bills itself as “hyper-personalized astrology,” serving “algorithmically-generated insights personalized to a degree unattainable elsewhere.” Its name implies that every user has a supporting role in the drama of the universe. And it works off the user’s natal chart, not their basic sign: When you sign up, you’re prompted to plug in the date, time and place you were born. (If you don’t know your exact time of birth, you’re directed to “text your mom.”) As The Daily Hunch puts it, “You’re 1 in 7 billion — not 1 in 12.”

Modern horoscope apps and columns are also fitted to satisfy up-to-the-minute psychological fixations. Co-Star has advised me to keep up my “rituals of self-care,” while Lenny has warned that the pressures of “the internet and commerce and politics and fashion and relationships” can “have a blinding effect on our third eye.” Other internet-savvy astrologers are explicitly branding their practices as tools of the #resistance, looking to planetary alignments to shed light on the machinations of the tax bill or Russian election meddling. And Nicholas has linked her astrology with other front-of-mind millennial preoccupations, like capitalism and the patriarchy.

A lot of the updated signals are aesthetic ones. Old-school astrological images of constellations and line-drawn star signs have been replaced by pastel illustrations and mixed media collages. The dominant look is nostalgic but not staid. (Broadly has called the Co-Star interface, which features high-contrast black-and-white images of rocks and disembodied hands, “chic as hell.”)

The rise of astrology, Instagrammable crystals and generalized coven-talk all evokes a throwback for ‘90s kids, who grew up watching “The Craft” and playing with cardboard Hasbro Ouija boards at slumber parties.

All of this speaks to astrology’s return as a compelling content business as much as a traditional spiritual practice. The Daily Hunch was started by a former journalist, Steph Koyfman, and the occult-y internet brand The HoodWitch, which offers a set of “witch tips” along with its weekly horoscope, lists its business as eCommerce but also “visual storytelling.”

Astrology’s personalization tool can be applied to almost any subject. Broadly recently published a guide to Zodiac-informed weed consumption, with advice including “your ideal strains and what kind of highs to avoid.” (High Times, too, has a resident astrologer.) HelloGiggles offers 2018 beauty trends as predicted by your Zodiac sign. When Girlboss published an “astrology gift guide” last month, with personalized ideas for each sign, the site explained that “Astrology-based gifts scream ‘considered and magical,’ even if the relationship between said sun sign and said gift is tenuous.” At the very least, it’s “a sure sign that you know when their birthday is.”

It can be disquieting, and maybe a little dangerous, to see otherwise journalistic publications look to pseudoscience for answers. Astrology’s online uptake doesn’t feel too different, at times, than outright conspiracy theorizing. It risks becoming the free-spirited liberal equivalent of pushing aside facts inconvenient to one’s worldview as “fake news.”

But reports of astrological acceptance rising among younger generations might overstate the case. You don’t have to actually believe in astrology to be into it. That position is best exemplified by the Twitter meme, “astrology is fake but.” As in, “Astrology is fake but there’s also a $200 rose gold trash can that I want, which is probably the most Leo thing ever.” “Astrology is fake but” is also the theme of a rollicking horoscope column on The Hairpin by Rosa Lyster. Many successful modern astrologists adopt a wry distance to their subject matter, a departure from the sincere and anodyne advice of traditional newspaper astrologers. The Cut’s resident astrologer, Claire Comstock-Gay, goes by the kicky name “Madame Clairevoyant.” Poet and essayist Melissa Broder offers “Lennyscopes” on Lenny Letter, which read like a slyly sarcastic version of the Zodiac that undercut the practice even as they reinforce it. There’s a silly kind of pleasure to be taken in twisting scientific data points — birth dates, orbits, planetary alignments — into little morality plays about our inconsequential personal dramas.

The Daily Hunch addresses the issue head-on. A tab on its website, “Astrology Is Nonsense,” explains, “Physics isn’t happy with the idea that planets are meddling in our love affairs, and confirmation bias keeps us from being dissuaded when horoscopes miss the mark.” Instead, its founder, Koyfman, presents astrology as a way of filtering the world through a specific narrative. “This book deals primarily in archetypes. Those are literary devices, not scientific instruments,” she writes. “The story is cyclical like the seasons, and life, and your Netflix shame spirals.”

Crucially, the “story” astrologists are telling is now capable of unfolding at the pace of the internet. Twitter allows astrologers to push out updates to fans that keep pace with the news, and AI and machine learning can churn out predictions at speeds unmatched by flesh-and-blood astrologers.

When I plugged my information into Co-Star, it came already stacked with two dozen “updates” charting my position relative to the stars. I learned that my moon is “conjunct to natal Venus,” which meant I should “spend time with friends” because I was “particularly magnetic” that day. Also, my Mars is “quincunx to natal Sun,” so I should “excavate and examine the person you really are” and also “take a break from social media if you can.”

It was good advice. I logged out of the app and never returned.