In a recent post on Courtney Perkins’s Instagram account, two gray-haired women stand with their arms around each other, their gazes purposeful, their mouths unsmiling. It’s not clear who they are or what they’re doing, but the two have planned their outfits for the occasion: One woman is wearing a turquoise T-shirt that says I get us out of trouble in a white block print. Next to her, the second woman’s coral shirt declares, I get us into trouble. She’s also wearing sunglasses, presumably because she’s the cool one.
To make the photo into a meme, Perkins, a 24-year-old comedy writer living in Los Angeles, divvied up the 12 zodiac signs under the two shirts’ proclamations. She then posted the finished product to @notallgeminis, an astrology-meme account she created in 2017 that now has nearly half a million followers. The comments underneath the post are full of thousands of people, mainly young women, tagging the Thelmas to their Louises with messages like “thank u for looking after me n my heart.”
Different corners of the internet are devoted to different pastimes: yelling about current events, posting vacation photos, sharing recipes. Each medium tends to have its own conventions about how to appropriately express emotion, which might mean ironic detachment on Twitter, placid domesticity on Facebook, or political rage pretty much anywhere. But research shows that young Americans are acutely aware of their own emotional struggles and those of their peers, and many of them seem to want an online home for their more tender thoughts. In the past two years, millions of them have found a conduit to talk to one another about their real lives: massively popular meme accounts and newer micro-social apps, all devoted to astrology.
As The Atlantic’s Julie Beck noted in early 2018, astrology has rerooted itself in American youth culture at precisely the time many young people, who are less religious and more online than ever, feel adrift. “It does give one a pleasing orderly sort of feeling, not unlike alphabetizing a library, to take life’s random events and emotions and slot them into helpfully labeled shelves,” Beck wrote. That’s especially true among queer people and in other marginalized communities, where it’s common to look outside of mainstream culture for ways to process and talk about experiences. Accounts like Perkins’s @notallgeminis, many of which are run by meme-makers in their teens and 20s, allow young people to turn that introspection outward and into something more social.
Because meme accounts exist within Instagram’s standard messaging and sharing structure, their creators have a front-row seat to the interactions sparked by their posts, such as the sweet notes in the comments section under the troublemaking elderly duo. “What I’ve found is that astrology is a jumping-off point for what people really want to talk about, and that can be anything,” Perkins says. “Astrology is a framework for analyzing yourself and your experiences, and people naturally bring other people into that.” On Instagram, the self-aware humor of meme culture lowers the stakes of involving friends in your personal reflections. Addressing the tedium and emotional distress of everyday life might be a lot easier if you lead with a photo of Martha Stewart riding a horse into the ocean.
Banu Guler, a co-founder of the astrology app Co-Star, thinks the ease with which astrology allows people to talk about personal struggles and negative emotions plays a huge role in its popularity. “It’s much easier to say, ‘I’m a Capricorn, so it’s hard for me to express my feelings,’ than to walk into a room and be like, ‘I’m an emotionally repressed psycho,’” she says. Perkins, too, has noticed that she gets a deeper reaction when her memes allude to the signs’ more negative qualities—that is, when her followers feel “dragged and roasted.”
Astrology can allow people to depersonalize and recontextualize their emotions as part of a common, collective journey, which can battle the isolation that often comes with feeling sad or anxious. In American culture, emotional struggles or “difficult” personalities are often seen as personal failings. In its own way, astrology gives people an opportunity to acknowledge the forces and power structures beyond the self that affect mood and behavior. At its best, it can encourage self-awareness instead of self-flagellation. That’s particularly important for young people, for whom shame can be especially harmful.
Research has also generally found that those with deeply held spiritual beliefs, such as faith in the personality-predicting powers of the stars, have better mental-health outcomes. But some psychologists believe that those effects may be more muted with astrology, with its intensely self-reflective nature, than in traditional religion, which tends to come with a community. Through social media, astrology buffs are building that crucial interpersonal network. “I get messages all the time about how I’m the main way people keep in touch with their siblings or their friend across the country, or that they have a group chat about my memes,” Perkins says.
Co-Star, which launched in late 2017, is part of a new crop of apps, along with The Pattern and Sanctuary, that use the time and location of a person’s birth to generate a detailed natal chart that goes deeper than the sun-sign horoscopes first developed as newspaper curiosities. Most of these apps have significant Instagram followings of their own (Co-Star has more than 600,000 followers) and post sleek, well-designed memes, complete with soothing colors and fashionable fonts, that have a more professional feel than the DIY culture built by Perkins and her contemporaries. The aesthetic seriousness offers an option for people who want to joke about feelings and anxiety, but don’t think an image of the Jersey Shore cast mate Snooki sipping from a giant, beer-infused margarita is the note they want to strike.
Co-Star has also spawned a different kind of sharing: The app’s frank (or rude, depending how you look at it) daily push notifications have developed a social-media life of their own. The messages, which say things like, “Your biggest challenge is to avoid becoming dead inside,” are frequently screenshotted and shared by users on Twitter and Instagram who feel, well, dragged and roasted.
The notifications are generated by artificial intelligence, and Guler says the company is constantly tweaking the formula to strike the right note. “We really try to think about how we talk to and text each other,” she explains. “It’s not sunshine and rainbows; it’s also pushing each other to be better humans and think more clearly.” Many people seem to find the approach compelling: Co-Star had more than 3 million members as of April, and the app has a five-star rating in the Apple App Store.
No matter your preferred medium, experts agree that a willingness to open up to others is a key step in the process of maintaining mental health. A close reading of one’s natal chart is by no means a replacement for necessary professional care, but the Child Mind Institute calls reaching out “a vital part of getting the help you need,” and research suggests that repressing negative emotions worsens stress. With rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicidality rising among young people, astrology’s ability to break down communication barriers and depersonalize the prohibitively personal has proved valuable to plenty of people. “That’s why astrology has stuck around for so long, especially in communities of punks and queers and anyone outside of mainstream culture,” Guler says.
Now interest in the practice goes far beyond those communities—a 2014 study by the National Science Foundation found that almost half of Americans believe astrology is at least sort of scientific, the highest proportion the organization has found since 1983. In the years since those data were collected, astrology has only gained cultural momentum, in part because of the efforts of people like Perkins and Guler.
There’s no scientific evidence that the planets have an effect on personality or behavior, but as with any system of belief, total adherence to astrology’s teachings isn’t necessary to dabble in its benefits. Maybe all it takes is an image of The Rock making friends with a porpoise, accompanied by a gentle joke about how Capricorns have trouble with intimacy, to help you feel seen by the stars.