Growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, Kuranda Elwood was always captivated by astrology. She took comfort in flipping through magazines and locating their horoscope sections, where she would read what was in store for Capricorn that month. By the time she turned 16, she began to wonder if there was more to the practice than the simple sun signs she read about in print. After some cursory online investigation, Elwood landed in a star-spangled, cosmic-leaning subset of Tumblr, immersed in a vast library of information and enthusiasts.
“In the magazines you get a very shallow look at what astrology is,” Elwood, now a 19-year-old psychology major at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, told me. “It’s almost watered-down for public consumption. On Tumblr, you have these deeper guides to astrology that would be considered more proper.”
Three years and countless hours of studying later, Elwood’s blog on the network, Astroalive, stands as a tribute to her self-education on the topic. There, she shares her opinion on hot-button issues within the community (like the dangers of using astrology to identify mental illness), maintains an index of digital collages called “aesthetics” for all 12 of the zodiac signs, and offers readings that cost anywhere between $15 and $60 via PayPal. She’s also used her working knowledge of the practice—which she credits to participating in a near-constant stream of discussions on Tumblr’s vibrant astrology community—to land a part-time writing gig at a horoscope website.
“I really had no intention of using it as some sort of career or money-making thing or anything like that,” Elwood said. “But it very quickly became a big thing. The more I got into it, the more I learned, the more I enjoyed it.”
Elwood, it turns out, is part of a vast network of teen astrologers who have used the internet, specifically Tumblr, to engage with the craft on impressively deep levels. Once a topic relegated to the back pages of Cosmopolitan,astrology has now become an engaging tool for millennials, both young and old, in search of self-discovery. (This is particularly true in moments of transition, marked for every person in their late 20s by the Saturn return.) With the help of Tumblr’s discovery features, blog-friendly posting format, and sensitive user base, digital-savvy young women have reinvigorated the art, transforming it into a meme-friendly and hip form of group therapy. In fervently pursuing the hobby, they have also established a new class of entrepreneurial chart readers, earning supplemental income by offering specialized interpretations to the people they connect with online.
“I built the blog really intending for it to be a way for me to teach myself,” Elwood told me. “It very quickly became a way for me to teach myself and teach others at the same time—which is a little wild.”
Looking for meaning in the sky is a practice that stretches back many millennia, long before David Karp launched Tumblr from his mother’s apartment in 2007. But recently, it has been experiencing a kind of digital renaissance. A 2012 survey by the National Science Foundation found that more than 40 percent of young adults in the U.S. believe astrology is somewhat scientific. (Despite the fact that it certainly is not.) According to a report by MarketWatch, the psychic service industry—which includes the readings of natal charts, palms, auras, and tarot-cards—grew by 2 percent between 2011 and 2016. As more young people drift apart from organized religion, they have sought to fill that void with everything from essential oils to SoulCycle. Astrology, a practice that is endlessly applicable and frequently self-affirming, is just as suitable a placeholder as boutique exercise classes and nice smells. As a friend who first led me through Tumblr’s astrological backroads put it: “The more you learn, the more you realize you can just make literally anything make sense via astrology. When someone is like ‘That’s not real for me,’ you can just be like OK BUT WHERE IS YOUR PLUTO, IS IT IN YOUR THIRD HOUSE??”
Before online forums became the unofficial schoolhouse for astrological ingenues, the practice was frequently intertwined with its most famous and cosmically idiosyncratic spokespeople. In the 1970s and 1980s, the author Liz Greene set out to legitimize the art by popularizing the term “psychological astrology” in books like Astrology for Lovers and The Astrology of Fate. She also worked with Alois Treindl, a German physicist, programmer, and founder of the popular website Astrodienst, to develop some of the first computer-generated natal charts, a celestial map that would become a central tool to practicing modern online astrology. Around the same era, the famous astrologer Robert Hand began investigating the uses of more complicated software to track cosmic patterns; he now sells corporate consultations and prerecorded astrology courses on his website, Arhat Media. When Susan Miller launched Astrology Zone in 1995, she brought an endearing, conversational feel to horoscope readings that—along with high-minded predictions about love and relationships—dealt with day-to-day matters, like upcoming social events or purchases. (“Electronics should never be purchased when Mercury is retrograde,” she wrote in her December horoscope for Leos; therefore my Christmas gift to my mother this year was a purse instead of a Bluetooth speaker.)
The appeal of Miller’s writing—which tends to root for readers, rather than try to spook them with lofty predictions—helped land her horoscope readings in a slew of international fashion magazines, engendering a generation of young, aesthetically conscious people to see astrology as a kind of therapeutic force. Her popularity within the New York fashion industry, flighty tweets, collection of astrology apps, and approximate 6 million online readers in 2013 have paved the way for the modern millennial astrologer. As The New York Times recently noted, chart readings can now be algorithmically generated via an app or hyper-specialized based on your political beliefs, income, or profession. Newer personalities to the scene include Chani Nicholas, whose readings, according to her very stylish website, “have been and are constantly shaped by LGBTQI2S, POC, feminist writers, artists, thinkers, activists and community members,” and the AstroTwins, who write horoscopes for Elle and Refinery29, and have ventured into the trendy realm of wellness by including Goopesque skincare and diet suggestions in their readings.
What is new to the astrology scene is the ability to organize its concepts on vast, searchable social networks of both amateur and experienced enthusiasts. The teen astrologists I spoke to said that Tumblr’s horoscope-obsessed community began to form around 2011 or so, and was bolstered by a tagging system that made it particularly easy to discover in-depth posts on niche topics. On top of that, the site’s unregulated blogging format allowed for those posts to run long, and include plenty of visual elements like GIFs, memes, and original artwork.
“It’s like genuine blogging,” 21-year-old Dyanara Quinones, who began studying astrology on Tumblr in 2011 and now sells readings for college spending money, told me. “You can personalize it as you see fit, so not only do you write and share your posts, but how you design your blog tells a little bit about who you are. It’s another form of self-expression.”
While the casual sign-reader might think of a horoscope as the interpretation of a zodiac symbol determined by her birthday, scholars of the practice view that as simply a launching point for more serious examination. The average astrologist is typically engrossed in reading various parts of the natal chart, which websites will generate based on the exact time, place, and date of birth. From there, interpreting what’s on the chart requires knowledge of four basic building blocks: signs, planets, houses, and aspects. After that, more serious scholars will delve into topics like asteroids, elements, and synastry—the practice of reading how two people’s charts interact with one another. (And all this is just Western astrology; don’t even get them started on Draconic.)
Tumblr offers both instant access to a vast archive of information and more generally, a welcoming environment for all skill levels of astrologer. But because beginners frequently interact with seasoned chart-readers on the site, points of contention are unavoidable. A power user’s FAQ page is often a useful digest of the most controversial topics of the community: whether being born on a cusp of two signs is significant; whether comparing charts can determine a couple’s compatibility; and, more generally, whether a person is doomed to live out a negative astrological aspect in their chart.
When I asked Quinones to explain why these were such sticking points—and specifically, why the cusp designation, which I qualify for and frequently reference, is so controversial—her voice immediately sharpened. “A cusp is the indication that you were born when the sun was transitioning between one sign to the next,” she said. “There are people born during this period, but you’re still ultimately your sun sign. You cannot be two signs at once because that indicates the sun is in two places at once, and I’m pretty sure we’d die if that were true.”
Like pretty much any subject on the internet, teen astrology has both its flash points and entry points. So it also makes sense that the way most people are introduced to Tumblr’s astrology is through a good meme. The most common formats for this bait either apply to a specific cosmic event or characterize each of the zodiac signs via pop culture or life experiences. An example of the former is the phrase “Being a Pisces during Virgo season like” punctuated with a moody Rihanna GIF; one of the latter is a post titled “the signs as things my science teacher has said/done.” (Sample: “Cancer: we aren’t leaving until i catch a paper rocket *misses 89 times*”). Alexis Duong, a 20-year-old college student who runs the popular Tumblr Ayyries, says these posts are part of the reason people converged to discuss astrology online in the first place.
“The astrology community on Tumblr sprung up because there was an emergence of astrology memes,” Duong told me. “It was really fun, because you could look at your sign and be like ‘Ooh, relatable,’ which is how memes work. That’s how I kind of came into it.”
It’s only after users run through a handful of memes and familiarize themselves with the people who post them that they might feel comfortable going deeper. Typically, the next step involves simply reading and responding to more seasoned astrologers. One person offers a perspective on how to interpret a particular arrangement of planets on the chart, and others will agree or disagree. The result can often be an intense group therapy session.
“I can’t believe how many people an astrology student must have personally observed and counselled to thoroughly ‘get’ certain astrological placements before we had the internet,” Marina Hima—who started her Tumblr, Astrology Marina, the day after her 17th birthday, in 2012—wrote via email. “Now people just share the most intimate details about their past, their thoughts and feelings, just to help the general astrology community to better learn about the placements of the planets. It feels really good to vent about personal desires and fears and have a reason or label for it, like ‘I struggle with intimacy because of this angle that Pluto is in to another planet in my chart.’ Then others will just be like, ‘Same.’”
As is the case in many loosely organized belief systems, amateur online astrologers earn respect and followers by demonstrating their depth of knowledge to their peers (and sometimes their colorful graphic design). By far the most experienced and respected name in the Tumblr community—one that was repeatedly named in my interviews—is a somewhat mysterious woman known as Astrolocherry.
A registered nurse, mother, and self-identifying “cosmic journalist” based in Australia, Astrolocherry functions as a kind of motherly figure in the online community. Her posts are mixtures of sentimental poetry and astrological analysis, and range in subject matter from assigning signs to Harry Potter characters (“harry potter – leo . . . the golden child with a prophetic purpose”) to niche astrological concepts like “mutable qualities” (“Mutable is most welcome in air, just as air relishes in mutable energy”). Her reading services begin at $50 for “a unique and personal cosmic fairytale written with the story of the birth chart,” and go all the way up to a $110 “Comprehensive Cherry Chart & Birth Chart Story” that, according to her site, averages around 5,000 words. “She’s one of my inspirations,” Quinones told me. “I love her writing, it’s so magical. I’ve cried reading some of her placement write-ups.” “Cherry was the one who started it all,” Duong confirmed. “She’s probably like the OG.”
In an effort to better understand Cherry’s appeal and how one Tumblr’s most-revered internet-bred astrologist might be able to help a millennial like me, I visited her PayPal page and requested her cheapest service: the “Birth Chart Story.” After waiting several weeks—in which I worried that Mercury going into retrograde might delay my reading even further—a 23-page PDF peppered with a bubbly cursive text appeared in my inbox. It oscillated between acute evaluations of my cosmic alignments and confounding phrases like “Your story is a continuous evaporation of the self in the duty of transformation.” I parsed through it for meaning, and slowly and surely began identifying tidbits of truth. “Your imagination can become overwhelmingly worrisome or consumed with delusional faults or criticisms,” she wrote, and I thought that, yes, maybe I was too hard on myself as deadlines approached. “Your heart and feeling state can inflate into a giant rainbow balloon,” she continued. I didn’t fully know what that meant, but it sounded positive. “Ghosts and spirits use electricity and playful mischief,” she added in an analysis of Aquarius in the Eighth House. Sure?
It was all so amalgamous that I felt almost drunk reading it, simultaneously compelled by the self-analysis while feeling sure this was also maybe, probably, surely gibberish. It reminded me of a sensation Elwood had described to me a few weeks ago. “There’s this intense draw to something that can help you understand yourself, something that can help you maybe make these hard decisions that are coming up in life,” she said. “That’s the thing about astrology, it sort of can be shifted and applied to whatever really draws that person in. The fluidity of the interpretation can be really appealing to a lot of different people, especially teenagers.”
I wanted to know more about Cherry. And after a month of correspondence between her and her associate, Lulu, I finally caught her on Skype the week before Christmas. She answered my call, sitting on her bed in Sydney; her wire-rimmed glasses and colorful tattoos were visible in close-up. On her right arm was a Nightmare Before Christmas tableau, on her left was a pinup girl riding a cherry. I could make out the words C H E R R Y in an elaborate cursive font spread across the left half of her collarbone.
Cherry, whose real name is Amber Ives, started her Tumblr in 2011, when, as she put it, “Neptune went into Pisces.” (“Neptune and Pisces are the real spiritual love signs, the homecoming sign, the divine sign, so a lot of people were inspired by an interest in astrology around that time,” she said, explaining the origin of her blog.) Since then, her site has accumulated about 130,000 followers, receiving about 20 to 30 chart requests a week. (She accepts a fraction of them as a means to support her and her young daughter.) I suggested she was an idol to her fellow online astrologists, and she modestly rebuffed the compliment, explaining she still had so much to lean. But when I posited that her popularity, and the avenue in which she reached other people, was all part of a new modern form of astrology, she paused for a second, and delivered some of the cosmic wisdom she was famous for.
“Tumblr is basically a network of younger people,” she said in her Aussie twang. “The statistics on my blog is that the readers are mostly age 16 to 34. So if you look at the generational aspects of what was going on during the time that they were born, there’s lots of sort of Aquarius, Uranus energy. Aquarius and Uranus rule astrology, and they also rule the internet and technology. So it makes sense that they find that unifying experience in an online environment.”
I was comforted by her response. I’d spent a significant amount of time and effort reporting out this story. And Ives’s breezy logic made me feel at ease. This generation rules the internet! I thought. Case closed! It was only then I understood the awe of her teen fan base. Her relaxed, poetic analysis of whatever complicated life puzzle was thrown her way was therapeutic to witness. It made sense that a young, emotionally ripe teen would find solace in her words.
“It’s stories about you that I’m writing,” Ives ventured, explaining her appeal. “You’re the one who’s divine. You’re the one that’s a god or a goddess. You’re the one that should be worshipped. You’re the one who has all the answers and has all this potential. You don’t need anyone else to bring that out of you; it’s all you. Astrology is just a reflection of that potential. The ultimate truth will be inside you.” Or, in the case of her band of teen followers, somewhere deep down a Tumblr rabbit hole.