In a white-walled, cement-floored room on the sixth floor of an office building in Chinatown, a handful of young content creators and engineers gather each day to put thousands of years of astrological knowledge into an algorithm. The workers are mostly women and non-binary people who speak in low voices and wear cool shoes.

On the early summer day I visit their office, everyone is wearing black casual wear and staring intently at more than one computer monitor around a long, white conference table in the middle of the room. A couple of them huddle near a wooden bookshelf that has been artfully stacked with titles like Identifying Planetary Triggers; Sex Signs: Every Woman’s Astrological and Psychological Guide to Love, Health, Men and More!; and Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being that rest comfortably atop Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love.

The workers refer to these and other related tomes as they develop Co-Star, one of the many new-ish astrology apps currently capitalizing on the renewed millennial interest in the ancient practice of reading the stars. The app asks users for detailed biographical information to develop an accurate natal chart, which is an “astronomical snapshot of the sky based on the exact day, time, and place you were born,” according to the copy on the app’s website. Co-Star sets itself apart from its competitors by using “data from NASA” and a proprietary algorithm that spits out unique, slightly robotic horoscopes for users each day, delivered in the form of push notifications. The style of the missives – direct, a little witchy, sometimes straight-up rude – has spawned countless memes and continues to drive users to the app almost two years after its founding. Since downloading Co-Star earlier this year, I have received notifications like “Check your ego” and “Do you play well with others?” and “Look in the mirror and ask yourself ‘who’s the boss?’.

Reading materials.

It is the perfect app for the current moment: spare and stylish, more than occasionally nihilistic in tone, and made to be shared on social media. That it is about astrology is almost incidental, but has obviously contributed to its popularity. Because astrology, as you have probably heard, is trending.

In the last five years, the practice has grown from a niche, New-Age pursuit to one of the main pillars of the millennial internet. What was once mainly a topic of discussion in female and queer spaces has permeated almost every corner of social media. Conversations about planetary transits and memes about what Virgos may be apt to do when presented with conflict are everywhere on Instagram and Twitter. (Co-Star itself has over 800,000 followers on Instagram.) It has been easier to remember friends’ birthdays over the last couple of years, because they will start posting on Instagram about “Taurus season” or “Pisces vibes” in advance of their special days. Horoscopes are so popular that even David Brooks is talking about them.

The “mystical services” market, which includes astrology as well as services like aura reading and mediumship, is now a $2.2 billion industry. Naturally, these kinds of services are moving online, and several app developers have stepped in to monetize the trend. Sanctuary, which launched earlier this year, charges users $19.99 a month for “live, on-demand personalized readings with professional astrologers.” The Pattern, a “personality” app that uses natal charts to determine users’, well, patterns, went viral in July after Channing Tatum posted an Instagram video accusing it of being too accurate. (The attention caused the app to briefly crash.) Co-Star is free to download, but users can pay $2.99 to enter friends’ or partners’ birth information in the app. As of this summer, Co-Star had over 5 million registered accounts.

Many have attributed the current astrology frenzy to millennials’ desire to talk about themselves at every turn. As Amanda Hess wrote at The New York Times last year, “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.”

CEO Banu Guler sits for a portrait in the New York office.

But according to Banu Guler, the 31-year-old co-founder and CEO of Co-Star, there is nothing silly about using astrology to explain yourself to your friends and followers. “The crux of feeling like a human is being able to talk about your reality,” she tells me on the morning of my office visit, in between bites of an everything bagel with cream cheese. “And I think the reason astrology has stuck around for 2,500 years is because it’s remarkably good at that.”

Signs, defined.

Guler is wearing a black turtleneck, black paper-bag style pants, and she is carrying a Juul, which she uses occasionally. She has a gold septum ring, a perfectly pointy mauve manicure, and speaks with seriousness about her work. A former employee of the fashion startup VFiles, she launched Co-Star in 2017 with co-founders Ben Weitzman and Anna Kopp partly because she wanted to focus her career on something more meaningful after President Trump was elected in 2016.

Astrology, she argues, “is a form of self care. I think it’s also a way of, sort of, collective care. Right? Maybe ‘collective self care’ is the word… this idea of building relationships with each other and taking care of each other.

Whatever kind of care astrology provides, VCs have determined that it is very valuable. In April, Co-Star raised $5.2 million in seed funding to continue growing the app and develop an Android version of it. “By positioning human experience against a backdrop of a vast universe, Co-Star creates a shortcut to real talk in a sea of small talk: a way to talk about who we are and how we relate to each other,” said the company in its funding announcement. “It doesn’t reduce complexity. It doesn’t judge. It understands.

The New York office of Co-Star.

Source: The Verge

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