Future Tense

Psychics Didn’t See the Internet Coming

Now they’re getting into the app biz.

Some psychics would still rather meet clients in so-called real life when they can.

Photo illustraton by Slate. Photo by iStock.

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At my reading with a psychic named Jennifer, there was no neon sign outside featuring a palm, no beaded curtain to walk through, no dark room lit only by candles, and most definitely no crystal ball. Instead, Jennifer sat in a well-lit space. She wore a ponytail and a striped top, no turban or big gold hoops, though she did have a pair of white earbuds dangling from her ears. I could only see her from the shoulders up, actually: We were on a video chat app that looked a lot like FaceTime. She sat upright in a brown chair, the posture of someone settled in for a long session of interpreting the energy of a bunch of strangers who had used their smartphones to order psychic readings, starting at $10 a pop.

Jennifer is a psychic on Purple Ocean, one of a growing number of apps for people seeking spiritual advice. Personally, I don’t believe in psychics, but I don’t not believe in them either. Aside from getting my palm read as a kid and putting in the requisite teenage-girl hours in my local Barnes & Noble’s New Age aisle, I’d never sought a spiritual adviser. In years past, I’d walked by storefront psychics and tarot readers and wondered how they stayed afloat in expensive cities like New York when I didn’t visit them, and neither did anyone I knew.

Yet somehow, mysticism has become a lifestyle trend, the kooky aunt or cousin of the wellness movement. Witches have joined the resistance against Donald Trump, the New York Times style section runs pieces about crystals, yoga studios in my Brooklyn neighborhood are hosting “psychic fairs,” and suddenly being interested in all things mystical doesn’t feel quite so fringy. The psychic industry alone is worth $2 billion, according to market research data. That doesn’t even include all the incense, books about how to read the tarot, and other accessories that go along with it.

In 2013, Ruby Warrington, the author of a book called Material Girl, Mystical World, founded the Numinous, a magazinelike website whose goal is to bridge “the gap between the mystical and the mainstream.” Since then, she said, she’s seen interest in this topic explode, especially among what she called “the young entrepreneurial creative class.” She thinks this is because “we’re living obviously through quite unprecedented times of change, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future.”

Psychics have been pretty late adapters of smartphone technology, which brings to mind the old cliché: If psychics are so good at predicting the future, why don’t more of them win the lottery? The reason they don’t, per psychics, is that it’s an oversimplification to say that what they do is predict the future. They prefer to see themselves as guides or counselors. But in 2017, as mystical apps and online communities proliferate, the industry may finally be ready to catch up.

In 2008, Charlie Federman co-founded BitWine, which was originally a marketplace for real-life services, kind of like TaskRabbit. But instead of photographers and dieticians, the site ended up overrun with psychics who were eager to use the billing infrastructure BitWine had built. These days, it’s the sister website to the app Purple Ocean, a place where users can connect to and chat with psychics.

“When we were discovered by the psychics, we really sat down and said, Is this the market that we wanted to be in?” Federman said. He was worried about the cultural impression of psychics as scammers or untrustworthy. But he was won over eventually. Most people who consult psychics are just looking for someone to talk to, often about love. To keep things on the up and up, BitWine explicitly bars psychics on its site from engaging in financial or health-related discussions, Federman said. And so about two years in, BitWine began catering exclusively to psychics.

Purple Ocean, which is the first foray into apps for the people behind BitWine, came along at the beginning of 2016. While BitWine offers chat-based readings, Purple Ocean boasts asynchronous video, meaning that psychics can do readings for customers on video (and customers can ask their questions via video as well), but the videos are recorded rather than live. In August, the Purple Ocean team launched its latest app, Purple Garden, which—finally—offers live video phone call readings. Though BitWine remains more popular than Purple Ocean or Purple Garden, Federman told me, the apps are growing quickly, and he expects psychics across the three properties to pull in more than 1 million paid readings this year.

But how was it possible that psychics hadn’t colonized the web in the ’90s? Federman filled me in on some history: “The industry started really with the telephone. You had all these 900 phone numbers. And so some great companies, like Keen and California Psychics, they built it over the telephone.” These companies were so loyal to the phone that they kind of missed the internet. (To be fair, they weren’t the only ones.)

When these companies did build websites, they mostly existed to direct customers toward the phones—sort of like how early magazine websites only existed to drive subscribers rather than publish anything. Another major company, Kasamba, started as a website but took a while to get into the app space. Keen, California Psychics, and Kasamba only introduced apps within the past year or so. The phone or web chat models were still working for them, and developing apps is expensive, plus they’d have to share revenue with Apple or Google. So they put it off. In the meantime, other players, like the Purples, swooped in, as well as a host of others—there’s Psychic Txt, Zodiac Touch Psychic Reading, Live Psychic Chat, My Astrology Advisor, My Tarot Advisor, and many more apps that offer paid readings through chat or video. (Pour one out for PsychicsLive.com, which saw the future but got the timing wrong. A TechCrunch article in 2011 declared, “PsychicsLive.com Sees Video Chat as the Future of the $2 Billion Psychic Market.” If you go to psychicslive.com now, it redirects to flirt4free.com, a porn site.)

The Purple apps are staffed by about 1,000 psychics who operate much like ride-hailing drivers or other players in the gig economy. Greg Tao, the CEO of Zodiac Consulting, told me in an email that on his company’s app, Zodiac Touch, “Most of our advisors are traditional psychic readers that had or still have their own brick-and-mortar shop. They prefer to work online with us because they like the dependable steady stream of customers we provide and the flexibility in working hours and place.”

In addition to my video reading with Jennifer on Purple Ocean, I ordered text-based readings from Psychic Txt and My Astrology Advisor. I asked all three for general career advice (wanting to sidestep talking about relationships, since I knew I’d be writing about the experience). When I settled on a pleasant-looking psychic in each app, I used the same vague query for all three: “I recently gained some new responsibilities in my job and am excited to be making progress in my career but also worried that I don’t deserve it and will fail.” (“New responsibilities” could mean anything here, I reasoned, maybe even just the responsibility of … writing this article.) All three apps offered me some measure of reassurance in response.

“From what I’m sensing, through your career, I definitely do feel as if there are many good changes coming your way,” Jennifer began. (I paid $15 for my video reading in Purple Ocean, $5 more than the usual price because I did a rush order.) “I absolutely feel as if in this year you’re going to be growing and you’re meant to be growing, but at the same time, a lot of your own fears and insecurities can be holding you back and locking you down and not allowing you to fully meet your true potential.” Uh-oh. I barely knew what my career question meant, yet here I was on the verge of tears. “Overall, right now you do feel as if you’re at a crossroad, and this is because you’re transitioning. Your energy tells me that you have a lot of bright and successful days ahead, but there’s a lot of anxiety that you’ve been holding onto. You feel as if you don’t know whether you’re taking two steps forward or three steps back.” I was starting to feel like a believer.

A skeptic might say all she did was read the insecurity in my question and offer me sympathy and encouragement. Another skeptic might point out that most people reaching out to a psychic probably feel like they are at a crossroad in their life. Why else ask for guidance? But those skeptics are jerks. The response felt individual to me, maybe because it’s hard to make a three-minute video addressing someone’s question not feel intimate.

Staring straight at the camera and talking to someone for three minutes has a clear advantage over a few lines of text. My reading from Julie of Psychic Txt was a lot briefer: “You are a person that focuses the way you’re supposed to. I do see you being strong minded enough to get through this company and work the way you know you can. Don’t stress it out because you’re definitely going to do a very good job.” It wasn’t short enough to tweet with a 140-character limit, but it would fit easily in 280. Luckily, I didn’t pay for this impersonal wisdom: It was free with credits that came with installing the app.

What I got from Melissa of My Astrology Advisor (another reading that was free after I installed the app) was a little longer: She sent a small screenshot—I couldn’t zoom in—and wrote, “The above pic is a pic of your natal chart. You have Sun, Venus and Mars in Virgo, so you are a diligent, modest worker. There can be a tendency to feel like you’re not ‘perfect’ enough at a task, or you are not quite there yet but you probably do things in such a fashion that make you ahead of everyone else with your dedication and attention to detail.” It went on: “It is important to begin a process of becoming aware of where these crippling voices of doubt come from. They probably don’t just emerge in your work life but other places.” She ended by transitioning into a pitch for me to get a (more expensive) video reading to explore my chart in a deeper way. Though the reading started out somewhat shallow, I felt seen by her talk of “crippling voices of doubt.” How did she know?

Video might be preferable to text and ascendant in the world of psychic apps, but with spiritual advice, the analog—getting an in-person reading—might be most preferable of all. Some psychics themselves seem to favor it. Alexa Nicole Ayers, who said she does four or five readings a month on Purple Ocean, would rather meet clients in so-called real life when she can: “Doing readings in person, it’s much more accurate, it’s much more comfortable and relaxed,” she said. But on the app, “you have three minutes to explain this person’s life to them, and it can be very impersonal.

Cindy Vega, a Brooklyn-based psychic, has noticed the ads for psychic apps on Instagram and is aware that instant-response texting apps are gaining traction. She said she isn’t opposed to them but worries about users becoming overly reliant on psychic guidance. With the option of constant contact, customers can seek out readings more often than is healthy. “I just feel like it really prevents people from walking on their path and making decisions on their own,” Vega said. “It’s OK to go for a psychic reading; I just don’t feel like one should depend on it.” Vega also worries about psychics who take advantage of customers on these apps.

For spiritual advice seekers, there is a wider range of choices than ever before. Many end up opting for something somewhere in between an app reading and in-person experience. Racked has covered Etsy’s thriving market for psychic readings. Readings over Skype are popular, too. “There is one psychic that I’ve worked with in the past who does her readings via email,” Warrington said. “She just asks you loads of questions and you kind of, like, correspond back and forth; it’s a bit like a psychic pen pal. And she’s really fab.” You might call her a happy medium.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.