High-Tech Astrology Apps Claim to Be More Personalized Than Ever. Gen Z-ers Are Turning Out to Be Believers

·9 min read

Credit - Illustration by Jarred Briggs for TIME

On a Tuesday in July, my phone began buzzing at 9:10 a.m. with a notification from The Pattern. “While it’s OK to embrace your competitive, independent spirit and fierceness, you don’t need to be stubborn about it,” the astrology app tells me. At 10:55 a.m., Sanctuary chimes in: “Let yourself get carried away! Passion will push you to authentic success.” At 12:36 p.m., The Pattern is back: “Today it could feel like love is in the air…” And then Co-Star adds at 12:53 p.m.: “You are a constellation of sadness.” Sanctuary wants the final word with a 2:30 p.m. update: “It’s getting hot in here! It’s the sexiest couple of the year! Mars links to Venus today and lights your heart on fire. Is your soulmate headed towards you, or are they already here?” All three apps have used my same birth date and location information at signup; the conclusions they’re drawing are a matter of the algorithmic magic at the center of their AI hearts. In the midst of an uncertain year, it’s easy to get wrapped up in their sometimes-buoyant, sometimes-cryptic advice. By Wednesday morning, I started wondering: is my soulmate truly the guy I’ve gone on a few dates with this summer? Do I need to be less stubborn? Is the malaise I feel today just something I can’t change?

The Pattern, Sanctuary and Co-Star are three leaders in a batch of astrological apps that have found a devoted audience over the past year. They each now claim to be more personalized than ever thanks to both algorithmic and live readings, and along with injections of capital into what one founder calls the “mystical services” space and a pandemic-induced interest in self-actualization and self-development, that’s led to a fresh boomtime for these companies. Co-Star raised $15 million this spring from venture capital; Sanctuary raised $3 million; The Pattern is preparing to raise for the first time soon, building on the momentum of their 15-million-user audience. Their plans: develop communities that depend on the automated, personalized predictions that their tech-boosted platforms can provide, at scale, in ways that traditional monthly or daily horoscopes never could. With individualized birth charts allowing for endless compatibility testing and daily, granular forecasts, the new business of astrology is about catering to each person, not each sign. Co-Star, for instance, brands itself as a “legitimate tool for self-care,” able to facilitate “meaningful connections” through its compatibility reports; they also have a plan to monetize through subscriptions. Sanctuary provides paid one-on-one text-based support—a kind of predictive therapy—with a stable of professional astrologists and tarot card readers available at the tap of a screen. The Pattern, which founder Lisa Donovan describes as “Facebook for the soul,” is developing its own paid version of a dating app, helping match people based on their profiles. The result: A network of options to navigate daily decision-making, all pieces of a “psychic services” market that has been valued at around $2.2 billion in the U.S.

<span class="copyright">Courtesy the author</span>
Courtesy the author

“You are very powerful,” Lisa Donovan tells me over Zoom from 4,800 miles away. “Anything you want you to do, you can probably make happen. So just trust yourself and do it.” Donovan is the founder of The Pattern, and she is reading my birth chart. After successfully exiting a YouTube-personality-turned-tech career, Donovan delved into astrology and found readings personally useful during a challenging time in her life. She started The Pattern in 2017, writing all of the app’s seemingly-infinite tidbits of analysis herself. It’s not about predicting the future, she says, it’s about identifying who we are now, so we can hone in on our strengths and understand our vulnerabilities. “A lot of the feedback we get is that it’s so personal, and especially for people that are going through a very hard time, this can be sort of that safe space for them,” she says. Donovan also removes some of the jargon of the stars. “There’s no mention of astrology, astrology symbols, there’s no Saturn,” she says. It’s the kind of insight that has such broad appeal that Donovan hasn’t spent a dollar on marketing; one day, she had shared a beta version of the app with 25 friends, and soon there were 30,000 users.

A representative from Co-Star shared with TIME that their app is downloaded nearly every three to four seconds in the U.S., also with no marketing spend to date, adding up to 20 million downloads. “The growth has been almost entirely word-of-mouth,” they note, with 25% of young women ages 18-25 in the U.S. having downloaded the app.

For some, checking in on the apps and reading into their suggestions has long been a ritual and, at times, a daily necessity. Musician Bryce Neville, 25, who records under the name Brucey Boi, first got into astrology in college when a friend started reading birth charts; soon, they were all regularly checking the site Alabe.com. By their junior year, Co-Star launched. Asking for a person’s sign was a default part of small talk, and one of the first things he still asks. “It felt like a handbook, like, Oh, this is who you are. And it was honestly very comforting,” Neville says. He remembers Co-Star’s daily notifications determining his outlook on what he could accomplish that day—for better or worse. He still runs compatibility tests with potential dates through the app, and has also become a devotee of The Pattern. The apps work, he says, on a therapeutic and self-development level: to validate certain experiences and help define others. “There is this urge for us to want to save the planet and to correct things,” he says of his generation. “And I think, in order for you to have firm beliefs in what you’re fighting for, you have to be able to know who you are.”

Ross Clark, who co-founded Sanctuary in 2019 after a career in media at Conde Nast and Hearst, was inspired by the way people he knew already engaged with astrology. “It was such a powerful part of people’s daily routine,” he says. Sanctuary moved away from AI to personalize its readings; it focuses on on-demand chats with a stable of professional astrologers and tarot card readers, with more options forthcoming. (The app’s basic horoscope and information functions are free, but the live chat is a paid option.) “We want everything to feel… like you’re texting your friend who happens to be this amazing astrologer,” Clark says. Over the past year, as unemployment claims have skyrocketed, Clark says users have been asking more questions about their work and careers, suggesting that they’re not just turning to astrology for answers on lighter topics like dating, but for serious life advice in a time of crisis.

Recent Pew Research also shows that younger generations are continuing a trend moving away from organized religion. To that end, some Gen Zers may be turning to “self-directed spirituality” to fill that void. “Astrology and also tarot provide very interesting and complex systems to do exactly that,” says Clark. “And then I think you’re overlaying all the turmoil of recent years into it.” A Pew Forum study shows that nearly a third of Americans reported a strengthening of “personal faith” after COVID-19. Astrology has long played a role as an alternative and tool for understanding the world around us; in times of crisis, people turn to it even more regularly, as evidenced by an uptick in the business of astrologers during the pandemic. (The first astrological column was published in response to the Great Depression.) Online searches for zodiac signs and birth charts hit a five-year peak in 2020, according to Google Trends. Even before the pandemic, Pew Studies showed that at least 60% of Millennials considered their faith to be “New Age spirituality;” about 30% were believers in astrology specifically, according to research published in 2018.

“It’s being used as a tool to make sense of the world and a version of therapy,” says trend forecaster and consultant Lucie Greene, who runs a futures, research and brand strategy practice with an eye on Gen Z behaviors. She considers it part of a movement towards self-analysis in which people monitor every aspect of personal and mental health. Greene also notes the importance, especially for Gen Zs and younger Millennials, of establishing a digital identity—which personalized app-based horoscopes and personality readings like The Pattern can help shape. And it doesn’t hurt that we are in the midst of a resurgence of interest in trends of the 1990s and early 2000s, when magazine horoscopes were spiking in popularity. To those in the business, the timing of these trends and the steady uptick in astrological interest feels auspicious. Donovan predicts a future in which even workplaces will use birth charts and apps like hers to help better understand employees, like the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs personality test.

On Wednesday, too curious not to give it a shot, I run a Pattern “bond” and a Co-Star compatibility test on a romantic prospect of my own. “This pattern with you is one of the most fortunate and enjoyable connections they can have with someone,” The Pattern enthuses. “In fact, you may be the kind of person who’s ideal for them in the long run.” Co-Star is less optimistic: “It’s challenging to understand the other’s approach to love and romantically, you frequently end up feeling unloved or uncared for,” that app warns. Confused, I turn to Sanctuary, and opt in to a 15-minute paid live chat astrological reading. After a few minutes, I’m notified that all available readers are busy for now. Then I remember Donovan’s reading: “Just trust yourself.” Apps can be powerful, and powerfully alluring, tools. But no matter how personalized they get, they can never really know you.