The VICE Channels

    Online Psychics Never Saw Me Coming

    Written by Rebecca Grant

    My first attempt at getting an online psychic reading was foiled by technical issues.

    Before being slapped by the harsh white of the “site error” screen, I had spent 20 minutes combing Keen.com for a chat-based psychic who met my needs. My first priority, as a seasoned peruser of Amazon and Yelp, was ratings. I wasn’t about to waste my time on some three-and-a-half star crank. However, I quickly realized that each of the 81 psychics offering chat-based readings was emblazoned with five stars, and so I shifted my focus to popularity. A slew of the psychics had tens of thousands of reviews under their belt, and I figured experience was as good a stand-in as any for quality.

    Cost was another consideration. While committed to availing myself of top-tier service, I was not about to dedicate $19.99 a minute to the cause. I limited my initial search to under $2 a minute, and was still left with dozens of options. The paralysis that always strikes when attempting to make important life decisions, like which Netflix documentary to watch, began to sink in, except destiny was on the line.

    As a writer, I immediately disregarded any psychics with glaring errors in spelling or punctuation. If you can’t handle a comma, how can I trust you to handle my future? Profiles entirely in uppercase letters or that treated capitalization as a free-form exercise were passed over (pun intended) as well. The pool began to dwindle. I put the male psychic who claimed “men read better” on my mental blacklist, and was unimpressed by anyone who called too heavily upon “the angels.”

    I wondered how psychics could conduct readings based on tiny, mediated slivers of connection

    Finally I narrowed my search down to two options: “the psychic one”, with an impressive 74,855 reviews, and “Advisor Bella Magnolia,” who styled herself as a hereditary witch. Unfortunately, by the time this exhaustive process was complete and I mustered the courage to hit “Chat Now,” the page I was trying to reach “could not be displayed at this time.” I refreshed a few times to no avail.

    The Craft

    Like many girls growing up in the 90s, I have long kindled a fascination with witchcraft, astrology and fortune telling. My friends and I attempted to brew love potions for our seventh grade crushes at sleepovers and spooked ourselves with Ouija boards. One Friday night in suburbia, when lurking outside the movie theater got boring, I followed a neon sign for a palm reader and surprised the clairvoyant in her bathrobe holding a laundry basket. She told me I would one day have a creative profession, which I suppose turned out to be prophetic, although at the time I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian (this largely had to do with my love of puppies, and not any particular interest in animal science).

    Over the years, divination in its various forms has consistently weaved its way in and out of my life. My fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I would read each other’s palms on weekends away from our villages, and friend Kelsi and I always check in with her Goddess tarot card deck when we are together. During my most recent visit to a psychic storefront in San Luis Obispo, California, I was told I would fall in love with a man named Christopher. Considering I am in a long-term relationship with someone whose name is not Christopher, and considering Christopher is my father’s name, I was a perturbed, but obligingly handed over the $45.

    All of these dabblings are firmly rooted in in-person interactions, and I have never crossed the threshold into the realm of telephone psychics. This is partly because I love the performance aspect of fortune telling—the candles, the cards, the scarves—which telephones cut out of the experience. It’s also because I came of age during the era of Miss Cleo and the Psychic Readers Network, which was infamously embroiled in a number of lawsuits. It seems like not a year goes by without a flurry of articles in the media about purportedly sane, rational, successful people who unwittingly blow $713,975 on psychic readings. Providing credit card information has always seemed like a barrier I am better off not crossing.

    Then one day I was talking with a friend who mentioned her mother was a “spiritualist” and conducted online chat-based readings. I was immediately intrigued. I had no idea that such services existed and I was skeptical, because it seemed to me that chats were even more removed than phone calls from the intimate experience that is at the core of what makes fortune telling meaningful to me. I wondered how psychics could conduct readings based on tiny, mediated slivers of connection, and about whether the digital frontier of fortune telling was stripped of its power and magic. Without the thrilling discomfort of a stranger holding your palm, the anticipation of flipping over a tarot card, the soul-searching conversations among friends about the future, what was left?

    I gave Spiritualist Julie a call.

    “When I started professionally back in 1990-91, we had the 900 lines, but those got a bad rap,” she said, from her home in Florida. “Then the internet came around and my business soared. Doing readings online actually makes them more honest and fair to the client, because the instant you meet somebody, your brain makes all these decisions about this person, and online you can’t do that. Online, I don't see you. I don't know how old you are, your race, or how wealthy you are. I only know your soul, what's blocking it, why it isn’t shining.”

    Spiritualist Julie got her start as a psychic after looking for a job to support herself and her daughter. She said she always had a gift, but it was something she viewed as a hobby rather than a career. Then she saw an ad in a free local paper that said “If you want to be a psychic, call this number.” She called, went to the purveyor of the ad’s house, and did a reading. He hired her on the spot, and she began making 42 cents a minute conducting phone readings from her home. Her career continued to grow as she starred in infomercials, and once appeared on the Maury Povich show. However, Julie still had to pay a third of her income to the middlemen who operated the phone hotlines.

    About ten years ago, one of Julie’s clients told her to list herself on Keen, an online platform for psychic readings, tarot, horoscopes and love advice, and Julie leapt at the chance for greater autonomy.

    “I’ve gone out and done the shows and the conventions, but I find the public stuff very draining,” she said. “On the internet, I don’t have to get dressed or wear makeup or put on my crystals. I am 65 and I need those things—when you are old, you need foo foo. Now I can just wake up and make money. Maybe I’m naked. Maybe I’m in bed.”

    The aspects of psychic readings that I value the most are exactly those that Julie thanks the internet for liberating her from. It had never occurred to me that more distance, more barriers, more tenuous connections would lead to purer readings. Unlike myself, it seems the people who seek out online psychic readings are not focused on the “foo foo.” They are genuinely looking for answers.

    Burning Questions

    Kalisa Augustine is a natural healer based in New York who offers a range of energy healing services both in-person and online. Crystal bed therapy sessions—where you recline on a bed of seven quartz crystals in order to unblock and purify energy -- are conducted in-person, but Augustine also offers remote energy clearing, which is cheaper than an in-person session and more convenient for people who do not live in the area. I was particularly interested in her “burning question” service, where people can email her a specific question and receive “intuitive guidance” on the subject for $50.

    “I like one-on-one intimate sessions, but I also love doing the burning questions because I love writing,” Augustine said, over tea at a Brooklyn cafe. “I started the service three months ago because it makes my work more accessible to people who need it.”

    "I only know your soul, what's blocking it, why it isn’t shining."

    Augustine has studied energy and healing in earnest for 11 years and founded her business in 2013. She brings a digitally-savvy flair to her work and has invested considerable effort in a sleek website, social media presence, and branding. Social media has enabled her to cultivate an aura and a community around the work that she does. It promotes, rather than subdues, the mystique. Beyond word-of-mouth, Instagram is her most useful channel for attracting clients.

    “As I researched this world, I wondered why all the websites and books I saw had such awful taste,” Augustine said. “I did not want a hippie, moonchild look. I wanted simple, clean, minimalist and modern.”

    Image: Kalisa Augustine

    Both Julie and Augustine said that the internet serves as a spiritual onramp of sorts because people can learn about and access services from the privacy of their homes. Love is one of the most common query topics, as is how to navigate low or stressful periods, or major life transitions. Online services enable people to access guidance whenever and wherever they need it, and as with so many things, the internet’s cloak of anonymity provides a blissful respite from concerns about being labeled a sucker, weirdo, or quack.

    In addition, and perhaps counterintuitively, Julie and Augustine both say the internet elevates the standard of accountability, or at least of transparency. Whether through ratings on Keen or Yelp reviews, “gypsy” psychics or healers are quickly ferreted out.

    “The market is flooded with gypsies who can’t hold a job and who will try to keep you on the phone or in a chat by chit-chatting with you, but then they are gone,” Julie said. “The feedback system weeds the gypsies who aren’t real readers right out. They go down quick.”

    However, the feedback system has its downsides. Julie prides herself on a “no bullshit” policy, but said this has led to a few occasions where she was honest with a client about their situation—for example, telling a woman that she would never get back together with her boyfriend—and they retaliate with negative reviews.

    “Some clients shoot the messenger because they don’t like what they hear,” Julie said.

    The appeal of seeking out psychic services is the excitement of peering into the unknown. However, many of the people who seek out these services are feeling lost and looking for guidance; they want reassurance, not whimsy. In the past if they received a reading they did not like, there was little recourse. Now they can lash out in a public way.

    The chat-based format emphasizes the transactional nature of the readings, which leads to customers who get angry when they don’t feel like they got their money’s worth. This anger runs counter to the motivation for paying for psychic services in the first place, which is ostensibly to gain truth and insight. It can also put psychics in a difficult position because negative reviews hurt their business. They are not immune to the obsessive feedback loop of the internet, which for me, undermines the power of the experience. What’s the point of talking to a psychic if you are not willing to hear bad news? And what’s the point of talking to a psychic if it’s a straightforward client-service provider interaction?

    I suppose this leads to the more fundamental question of, “what’s the point of talking to a psychic?” which is a question for another day and another piece of writing. For my own purposes, the value is entertainment, and I did not find it through the chat.

    Third Time’s A Charm

    After failing repeatedly to connect with a psychic via chat on Keen’s site, I defected over to Tara Medium, who, after I clicked “claim my free reading,” entrusted me with a “permanent Protecting Shield to repel bad luck.” To unleash this first line of defense, all I had to do was stay alone in a quiet room at nightfall, light a white candle, and recite the mantra, “Onor, Sobodor Mystici, Poseam Honoris Beatis Limpia” seven times.

    BestPsychicDirectory.com definitely has its SEO down.

    Unsatisfied and looking for something more concrete, I moved on to one of the many other sites offering psychic chat services, including BestAmericanPsychics.com and BestPsychicDirectory.com. I browsed around and found a psychic medium to my liking named Shelley. After navigating through the registration and login process with a service called Click4Advisor (which enables “'click-for-talk' live voice communication from the web, emails and advertising banners” and seems to have cornered the market in online psychic chat software), I eagerly awaited my turn. And then I waited and waited, until I got an email notifying me that Shelley had deleted my chat request.

    Getting an online reading was shaping up to be far more difficult than anticipated, but I figured third time’s the charm. I moved on to the BestPsychicDirectory and selected a Certified Psychic Medium named Meilena, who was pricier than my initial budget, but at this point, I was desperate.

    I decided to ask about my relationship, since that seemed to be a dominant theme among those who seek psychic services. She said “one moment” and I watched as my modest deposit slowly dripped away. 30 seconds later, she told me a few things came up: There are mental conflicts from the past that are impacting my relationship now, and which cause my partner to be quiet and withdrawn sometimes. Great, so pretty much every relationship in the history of the universe.

    I was also told I may need to help guide him out of it. And then alas, in three minutes, my $20 deposit was sapped, and I thought about all the other things I could have done with that $20. Somethings are better left un-digitalized. I think I’ll stick to playing with tarot cards in my pajamas. That, for me, still holds delight, comfort and magic.