Star Wars: Inside the Astrology Industry’s Battle to Sell You an App

With their impossibly cool vibe and frighteningly spot-on predictions, astrology apps are coming for your wallet

Illustration: Terrell Davis

TTali Edut hates astrology memes — the kind you’d find on Instagram accounts like @cancermajesty and @yourmomshoroscope. They focus only on the zodiac signs, she says, which leaves out an entire galaxy’s worth of other pertinent information — information that could help you make sense of your relationship with your sister, or a period of professional upheaval, or a new paramour. “I want to burn them all,” she fumes.

Edut is one-half of the AstroTwins, a popular astrologist duo. Tali and her identical twin sister, Ophira, are Elle’s official astrologers. They also run their own website and have been profiled in the New York Times. They’re fairly mainstream, as far as these things go. Yet, when it comes to the memes, Tali is a firm nonbeliever.

She might be the only one. The popularity of astrology memes is just one symptom of astrology’s broader cultural renaissance: astrology merch, books, makeup, podcasts, meta–think pieces, and celebrities are all on the rise.

Certain people — savvy, technologically sophisticated, money-aware people — have capitalized on the frenzied interest. Enter the apps: Co-Star, the Pattern, and Sanctuary, to name a few. These products communicate old ideas in contemporary, highly accessible ways, but more important, they’ve managed to harness the zeitgeist and have risen to the top of our collective consciousness. Impossibly cool, aesthetically pleasing, and generously funded, they want to entice every millennial with a smartphone to fall headfirst into astrology.

It’s a crowded market, and competition is fierce. Whichever lucky app comes out on top could stand to rake it in à la Calm, an early meditation app reportedly valued earlier this year at $1 billion. And so, in the classic mold of Uber vs. Lyft or Instagram vs. Snapchat, each app is doing whatever it can to stand out as the definitive guide to your future.

The entrepreneurs behind these apps have reason to expect a hefty payday. According to a recent report by market research company IBISWorld, Americans forked over more than $2 billion on “mystical services” in 2018. Ross Clark, co-founder and CEO of Sanctuary, often uses that number as a talking point to illustrate the market’s allure.

When it comes to iOS app downloads, Co-Star leads the pack by a wide margin.

Co-Star leads the Pattern and Sanctuary by a wide margin in terms of iOS downloads. According to data provided to GEN, by analytics firm Sensor Tower, the app racked up just over 3.5 million downloads on iOS between July 2018 and August 2019. The Pattern came in at slightly under 1.25 million during the same time frame. (A whopping 664,000 of those, however, came in July 2019 alone, the same month Channing Tatum posted a viral video about the app.) Sanctuary, by comparison, has garnered nearly 260,000 downloads, though it only launched in March 2019. (None of these companies offer Android apps, though Co-Star intends to use its latest funding round to develop one.)

There’s a fourth contender you hear less about: Daily Horoscope Plus, which received more downloads than any of the buzzy three in this same time period. It also makes more money than Co-Star and is available on Android. But it certainly lacks the sophisticated sheen of the other entrants, and it’s losing momentum. Daily Horoscope Plus was downloaded 100,000 times this past August, compared to Co-Star’s 400,000. It also doesn’t have the same cultural pull; there’s nary a think piece or viral Twitter thread to its name. A rather nebulous distinction, to be sure, but one that is crucial when it comes to drumming up attention.

In any event, the pressure is on to capitalize on this growing category. In the race for our ever-limited attention, which shiny new entrant will take the top spot on your home screen?

Co-Star, the Pattern, and Sanctuary are all aesthetically similar, and they all appeal to similar audiences: young, in-the-know people who are worried about the world and maybe a little solipsistic. Each app attempts a unique selling point: Co-Star touts its use of artificial intelligence and sophisticated data. Sanctuary offers live readings with real astrologers. The Pattern has less to offer in the way of unique services, but it has leveraged an aura of mystery —and celebrity endorsement — to drum up interest.

Sara Colon, a 21-year-old student living in Puerto Rico, says that she downloaded the Pattern, which is all over Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit, in February. “I fell in love with the Pattern right away,” she says. “You get insightful messages every day, and once you read that message, you feel compelled to keep reading the rest… [I]t breaks down information into various sections, or patterns, that ultimately read you [for] filth.”

The Pattern’s buzz contrasts with the secrecy that surrounds it. Founder Lisa Donovan is a former YouTuber and actress who helped start Maker Studios, which Disney bought in 2014 for more than half a billion dollars. But she maintains a fairly low internet profile and isn’t easily identifiable as the founder. The New York Times noted in April that the app hadn’t snagged a “formal round” of outside funding; beyond that, the company is curiously secretive. It has a bare-bones website, and the Internet Archive’s oldest record of its existence dates back to just February of this year. Its Twitter and Instagram accounts likewise became active then.

Despite their woo-woo sheen, these apps echo Silicon Valley more than they echo ancient mysticism.

The Pattern didn’t return multiple requests for comment, and a visit to the New York City address listed in its terms of service led to a mail center. It housed a mailbox belonging to Donovan, but no other clues.

In contrast to its competitors, the Pattern doesn’t explicitly use the word “astrology” in its branding. Its description mentions tracking a user’s “timing” and “cycles,” but the app features only astrology-adjacent ideas and terms — “past-life karmic links” and romantic compatibility, to name a few. (The word “astrology” does, however, appear in its terms of service—in the basic description of the app.)

Then there’s Co-Star. Born in 2017, it explicitly sells itself as an astrology app. It also takes a far more brazen approach to its notifications. It once told me that “nobody cares how many books you’ve read.” If the Pattern is a little blunt — it once told me my relationships were unconventional and unpredictable — Co-Star is like a drunk friend who texts every loopy, unhinged musing that crosses her mind.

The intimate, assertive tone positions the app as a source of authority and fosters a sense of trustworthiness. The batshittery is also useful from a branding perspective — plenty of people have noticed, and they talk about it frequently.

Co-Star also claims to power its horoscopes using artificial intelligence, as well as human astrologers and, yes, data from NASA. (When asked about their relationship, NASA was decidedly mum: “The application developer may have used publicly available NASA data, which does not necessarily equate to collaboration,” a spokesperson tells GEN. “As a publicly funded agency, NASA provides open public access to much of its data.”)

Nevertheless, Banu Guler, co-founder of Co-Star, is intent on stressing the app’s modern relevance. “Humans have been using astrology for over 2,500 years,” Guler says. “I saw that while millions of people were using astrology in their everyday lives, there wasn’t a modern astrological tool to make the experience digital, personal, and social.”

This makes some sense. Tanya Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University who studies belief systems and spirituality, compares astrology to psychotherapy. “The way that astrology seems to be used in my experience is like a counseling session,” she says. People seem to be less interested in situational circumstances — a lost cat, for example — than they are in figuring out how to manage themselves, she adds.

It’s hard to buy the claim that Co-Star alone is “bringing astrology into the 21st century,” but what it does do particularly well is speak to a certain sort of zeitgeisty aesthetic, with its minimalistic, grayscale design and quasi-nihilistic tone. It flies directly in the face of the dated image people often conjure when they think of astrology, which is to say, something Professor Trelawney–adjacent, full of shawls and patchouli and dust.

At their heart, these apps are tech products. The spiky notifications in particular demonstrate a canny understanding of the slot machine–like way we use our phones: If it’s in your face, you can’t help but feel compelled to open it.

Nowhere is this clearer than with Sanctuary, which has been given the now-dubious label as the Uber for astrology. Though it offers free daily horoscopes, the explicit draw — and key differentiator — is its live readings, through which users can text with an astrologer in real time. At $19.99 per month for one reading and $19.99 each for additional sessions, it’s generally cheaper than an in-person reading. (Plus, it’s more convenient and, again, patchouli-free.)

“It’s really different than other offerings or experiences that one can have offline,” says Sanctuary’s Ross Clark. He emphasizes the company’s metrics and product-driven approach. He also notes the size and untappedness of the “mystical services market,” a talking point he has repeated elsewhere. When I suggest that it appears to be business first, astrology second, he dissents, arguing that the app’s use of “real astrologers,” as opposed to “natural language or A.I.-created content” — a reference, seemingly, to apps like Co-Star — gives the product credibility. “I would say we’re probably the ones who are most embedded with the astrology community,” Clark says.

My free demo reading, offered for the purposes of reporting this story, was only 15 minutes long and gave me no way to research my astrologer ahead of time. It was a fun, surface-level distraction: Cello, my astrologer, predicted that the full moon in Pisces on September 14 would be a “magical day filled with opportunities for creativity, celebration, and culmination.” This was partly true: I saw Hustlers, which was magical enough. I can’t imagine I’d feel that way if I actually had to shell out for the reading, though.

But while using real astrologers is a draw, it also raises the bar: If people pay more, they’ll expect more. (Co-Star’s paid tier, by way of comparison, charges $2.99. If you want to check up on someone who’s not on the app — a crush, maybe, or an evil co-worker — you can pay to manually input their birth data to see their chart.) Clark, however, is quick to tell me that the training and evaluation process for the app’s astrologers is “extensive,” stressing that the readers are “highly qualified and trained.”

MMuch has been made of these apps and their ability to attract young people: Why are youths so hung up on an ancient pseudoscience?

For the most part, they arrive at similar answers. Chaos, uncertainty, climate change, Donald Trump, a fading interest in organized religion, student debt, a desire to connect to something. In other words, we’re isolated, directionless, and worried. And astrology is here to help.

“It’s always dangerous to say that religious movements emerge in periods of uncertainty,” Luhrmann cautions. But she did draw a line from the decline in religiosity among young people to a renewed interest in other forms of spirituality. Or, as Guler puts it, “We are living in a time when people are more isolated than ever, and having access to a product that allows them to connect, share, and grow has a tremendous amount of potential.”

These conclusions are logical, of course. But Guler’s use of the word “potential” is conspicuous. “Potential” is not for the user alone; it’s also a carrot for the products and their creators. For them, it means money, influence, and power. Meditation apps, crystals, Goop, yoga — they all orbit our very modern idea of wellness, and wellness is big business. According to Research and Markets, the mindfulness industry alone is worth more than $1 billion.

Investors have taken note. “Co-Star created a platform that made it accessible and digestible to everyone and, more importantly, allowed them to use it as a way to relate to others in their lives,” says Anu Duggal, a founding partner at Female Founders Fund, which participated in the app’s latest funding round. It has raised nearly $6 million so far, while Sanctuary has raised $1.5 million in seed funding.

On its website, Co-Star touts astrology’s proficiency at “allowing irrationality to invade our techno-rationalist ways of living.” It’s a savvy pitch. But these apps are far from irrational. In fact, they’re part of the same techno-rationalist way of living they decry. You can see it in the funding, the love of data, the design, the branding. Even the approach belies a productivity-centric guiding principle: If you think you know your character quirks, flaws, and patterns, you can use them to your advantage. You can be better, more productive, more successful. You can optimize your life. Despite their woo-woo sheen, these apps echo Silicon Valley more than they echo ancient mysticism.

That doesn’t mean people can’t get something out of them, of course. As Colon puts it, “If they keep resonating as well as they do, trust that I will keep using [them]!” One could make the argument that these apps are simply taking advantage of the way we communicate now — that they’re merely using the most effective means necessary to distribute their message. Besides, when the world is falling apart, who’s to say how someone else should take refuge?

Well, the astrology apps will. But they’re just telling you to listen to the stars, baby.

Writer and editor with words in Gizmodo, Motherboard, and the Outline.

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