Surfing for the stars

A Redmond astrology start-up wants to fine-tune romantic advice— and marketing messages.

FINDING FAULT WITH ASTROLOGY is almost too easy. One recent day, a Web site offering daily astrological projections told me that I should turn my attention to "group situations that are truly important . . . sink [my] teeth into exciting but serious projects. Get away from frivolity." But a second site said the day would be best used to "accent relaxation, toss cares aside, and spend time away from the daily grind."

Reputable scientists gleefully debunk it as a hoary, ancient pseudoscience, yet astrology has never been more popular. More than a third of Americans say they believe in astrology—twice the number as admitted it 20 years ago. The words "astrology" and "horoscope" are among the top 10 or 20 keywords entered at Yahoo! and other popular search engines.

However, only a small percentage of believers or detractors know more than their own sign or a smattering of personality traits assigned to the various zodiac characters—Aquarians are kind and altruistic, Scorpios are determined and assertive, and so on.

StarIQ, an 18-month-old dot-com headquartered in Redmond, is out to change all that. The distinctions start on the company's home page with its public disclaimer: "StarIQ," it states in bright red letters, "is not for entertainment purposes only." These guys are serious about what they are doing, and they want their users to be. "StarIQ astrology information must be used with common sense," they caution. They will not be held responsible for how you use their content.

But then they're not just peddling the usual brand of Sun Sign astrology. The typical astrology column, such as the one in this newspaper, divides the terrestrial population into a dozen approximately equal groups, based on birth dates—the familiar 12 signs of the zodiac. Even assuming there is a bona fide connection between the positions of the planets and an individual's personality and emotions, the fact that 6 billion people currently cohabit the planet means each horoscope has to fit about 500 million people equally well.

A personalized natal chart, on the other hand, taking into account not only the month and day but the year and place a person was born, has a great deal more specificity. Add to that the exact time of birth, and every man, woman, and child that has ever lived has a distinctive zodiac chart, with several billion left over for future generations.

StarIQ cofounders Jeff Jawer and Rick Levine see the Internet as an ideal medium for delivering personalized astrological forecasts and advice. Every piece they send out can be targeted directly to the individual, and no two people need ever get precisely the same sets. At the same time, since the charts are all based on the progressions of fewer than a dozen planets— including the sun and moon as well as assorted lesser heavenly bodies—around a 360-degree circle, the process lends itself quite well to automation.

Mercury will come around to a 90-degree angle from where Saturn was when you were born at a different time than it will for me, but the so-called "Transiting Mercury Square Natal Saturn" aspect will show up sooner or later for everyone. Keeping track of just when is the kind of thing computers were made for. Given that lots of things are circling around up there at once, subscribers can expect a reasonably unique set of six to 10 commentaries a month. (The service is free, but subscribers need to supply the proper personal data and an e-mail address.) Currently StarIQ has signed up over 11,000 users, and reports an encouraging drop-out rate of less than 4 percent.

LISTENING TO JAWER TALK about the site is a study in apparent contrasts. He slips casually between planetary transits and the nodes of the moon to ASP technology and SQL-7 databases. This dichotomy is not surprising, given his background. Before taking the plunge as CEO and publisher at StarIQ, he was a marketing director for Matrix Software and vice president of operations at ACS Publications, a major publisher of astrological reference books and software.

StarIQ has won a place in the media as a go-to source for expert astrological information. A few weeks before Christmas, Jawer published a piece predicting—correctly—that Hollywood sweethearts Jim Carrey and Renee Zellweger would break up before the holidays. As he chatted with Seattle Weekly last month, Jawer was again reviewing Carrey and Zellweger's charts, preparing to go live with Access Hollywood to discuss the matter.

Another means of building the site's page-views is "Astro-Port," a clearinghouse for all kinds of astrological information, including a free listing service for professional astrologers and conferences worldwide. "We've created a place where astrologers can list themselves with their home page, photo, credentials," says Jawer. "They can have their publications, lectures, and [the] like in a totally searchable database."

For the moment, StarIQ is generating revenue by syndicating astrological columns and hawking books and other astrological paraphernalia online. The long-range plan is to roll out a series of fee-based personalized advice services dealing with health and herbs, finance and investing, and, of course, romance and dating. The first of these, called Love Cycles, is already available, both directly and through links on their affiliates' Web sites. For $40 a year, StarIQ e-mails weekly reports on how Venus' trek through the sky is affecting your relationships, both in the short and long term.

Rick Levine is hoping to eventually generate a database of up to a million subscribers or more, which will allow him to do some serious data mining and research to confirm astrological beliefs. He can imagine the effect it would have on how skeptics view his pet science if user surveys revealed that the predictions were right after all.

He also sees some serious commercial applications in the wings. "What if an Amazon.com realized that, by employing our company as a research arm, they could increase their e-mail response rate?" Given a large enough sample, Levine says, it should be fairly easy to predict astrologically when a person is more or less inclined to buy stuff.

"What if I were to begin to develop, just from birth data, signatures of people who might be more willing to respond to an ad for camping equipment than the latest book by some intellectual figure? No one's done this kind of research," he says. "This is something that none of the other astrology Web sites out there are even interested in looking at.

"There are ethical issues there," Levine allows. "If we can isolate periods of stress and offer them stress-relieving products, on one hand, you could say that's a great service; on the other hand, without some prior notification that that's what you're going to do, there could be some invasion-of-privacy issues."

Sure, privacy could be a problem. But if StarIQ can actually help e-tailers extract more money from consumers, that will boost the reputation of astrology like nothing in history.

Astro-study

Jeff Jawer managed to get a BA in the "History and Science of Astrology" from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst back in 1970, but to do so he had to create his own program through the school's Interdisciplinary Studies program, one of those do-your-own-thing experiments that colleges were so fond of back in the day. Today, he could get virtually the same degree from an accredited, state-recognized college based in Lynnwood, although he would have to do it over the Internet.

After years of planning and fund-raising, the Kepler College of Astrological Arts and Sciences is, according to its president, Enid Newberg, the first college in 400 years specifically granted the authority to award bachelor's and master's degrees in astrology. The school is named for Johannes Kepler, the famous 16th century German astronomer, known as the father of modern astronomy for determining the basic laws of planetary motion.

Getting the school established and accredited "has been a nine-year project," says Joanne Wickenburg, chairman of the college's Board of Trustees. "We started our freshman class in July." She says the motivation for creating the college was "not only to reexamine the authenticity of astrology" by sponsoring objective research, but to "bring back some of the credibility that was lost and to let people know that it is a serious area of study."

The college has established itself as a distance-learning school, relying on the Internet to furnish the connections between professors and students. Students are also required to show up in person for a weeklong symposium each quarter, as well as write at least three term papers and a final research project.

Just as naturopathic medicine and acupuncture have gained acceptance over the past decades, Kepler's supporters are banking on the idea that, by providing an academic setting where researchers can conduct objective studies and students can take serious classes, astrology will be able to enter the social mainstream in the 21st century. In fact, Kepler is using the campus of Bastyr University in Bothell for their first symposium, scheduled for mid-January.

"The founding of the college will lead to heightened public respect and expectations of what astrology is capable of providing to the full spectrum of society," Newburg said in a press release when the state certification was finally granted.

M.F.

 
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