I don’t even believe in astrology, so why am I addicted to this horoscope app?
The Guardian. Wednesday, May 29, 2019.
Modern astrology taps into the deep irony of the extremely online. Is that why Co-Star rules my life right now?
It’s 10.02am and there’s a ping on my phone. “Ask people how they avoid becoming dead inside,” the message says.
It’s not a sarcastic retort from a friend, but a notification from the astrology app Co-Star. I downloaded it in January on the repeated recommendation of my group chat, who share zodiac memes with surprising frequency for a bunch of extremely down-to-earth women. I signed up out of idle interest, not a burning desire for celestial guidance. But as someone who prides herself on her rational nature I’m loath to admit I’ve become hooked. I don’t believe a word of it, and yet I check in with it daily.
I’m not the only one. Astrology, perhaps predictably in this age of economic, environmental and political disasters, is booming, particularly among millennials. Co-Star is just one of many apps and outlets cashing in on that, ahem, new wave.
Launched in 2017, Co-Star’s clean, stripped-back design, detailed daily horoscopes and pithy and increasingly meme-worthy push notifications have made it a viral success. It’s famous for being “AI-powered”, and a recent article in Vanity Fair described how the production team write sentence fragments and attach them to planetary movements (the company claims to use data from Nasa to track these), which then get ordered into your daily horoscope depending on how the heavens shift.
Thus the app’s capacity for gibberish and greatness, not to mention hyper-personalisation.
The company claims it has over 3m registered users, and in April, it landed more than $5m in venture capital, partly to bring its app to Android.
But if, as some have argued, millennials are turning to astrology in ever greater numbers at least partly as a consequence of being the most stressed generation ever, one might well wonder if the most online and connected generation has also become the most deluded. Astrology, after all, isn’t based on peer-reviewed research, systematic experimentation or detailed data analysis; we can’t all be looking for answers from an obscure “higher authority” at the same time as huge numbers of us accept the scientific consensus on things like the climate crisis.
As for how many of us actually “believe” our lives are written in the stars, that’s a difficult thing to establish even for career researchers in the area. My suspicion is that what attracts us is more complex than belief; less straightforward than a simple desire for an omniscient guide through life.
Modern astrology taps into the deep irony of the extremely online, and the accompanying instinct for self-deprecation. A meme is not a meme until it has been astrofied. Instagram accounts like @notallgeminis have turned astro-dragging into an art form.
Posting about the negative traits of your sun sign in today’s social media universe is about on par with spinning your biggest flaws into a humblebrag in a job interview. “Oh, I know I’m so flaky. I can’t help it, I’m an Aries!”
Meanwhile Spotify accounts release new sun sign-themed playlists every month. And if you’re bored, there’s always the time-honoured tradition that is roasting Capricorns.
It’s in my nature to be sceptical (or perhaps it’s just my Saturn in Scorpio), but I can’t help but think if you were going to construct a really effective data-mining scheme, astrology would be the perfect cover. Working out your chart requires not only the date but also the time and place of your birth – the kind of information you only supply for important government documents or proof of identity. And since preoccupations about personality inevitably slide into questions of compatibility, it’s really tempting to hook up astro apps to your contacts and social networks.
Honestly, though, if Co-Star turned on me like that I don’t think I’d even be mad. Part of the attraction is the fact that it’s far more likely to sledge me with caustic abandon than it is to tell me how cool and capable I am. That feels more real, somehow – a better representation of the mode in which my fellow millennials and I actually live – than rosy predictions about health, wealth and romance, or even doom and gloom delivered with a reassuring pat on the hand.
A friend recently admitted to me that she used to have a deck of tarot cards as a teenager. An academic in the social sciences, a Marxist and an activist, she nevertheless found the cards soothing and unexpectedly helpful for thinking through problems. It wasn’t about fate or fortune-telling in a crystal ball kind of way; it was about having a tool for ordering the disorder, a foil against which she could hold complex life events and see them from a different angle.
That resonates with me. It’s not about putting your life in the hands of a higher power, but finding a space amid the chaos to think through all the muck. If it takes some dubious, unscientific stargazing to be able to do that, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.