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Monday, June 5, 2023

The Improbable Appeal of TikTok Tarot

Jake Trevino is a TikTok tarot reader. In February he had a job lined up teaching and coaching a college speech team, but it fell through when the pandemic broke. Now he makes his money dealing cards and spinning stories in 60-second clips online. Before filming each video, Trevino says, he holds his tarot deck and meditates, asking his spirit guides about the message that the collective needs to hear. What is my person hiding from me? Or maybe, What does the universe need to tell me right now? “Then I just shuffle and whatever comes up to me comes up.”

It’s difficult to determine exactly how many tarot readers are on the platform (some have “tarot” in their handle, others don’t), but the hashtag “tarotreading” has 510.2 million views and the hashtag “tarot” has 1.8 billion views. A tarot reader named Jenny Chang is among the top players, with 970,000 followers; Mystic Tarot is another, with 200,000 followers. Trevino, who has 54,000 followers right now, is another who has found great—and perhaps surprising—success as a fortune-teller on a platform where interactions are driven not so much by kismet but the mindless gears of a machine.


Whenever Trevino or his colleagues post a reading, it’s TikTok that delivers it to users’ feeds: The spirit in this spiritual practice is contained within an algorithm. That might seem to be a fatal flaw. What value or meaning could there be in having a reading done by some stranger at some arbitrary point in time, then passed into your personal feed according to the arcane logic of a social-media app? Isn’t it central to the tarot experience that a person feels connected to the cards as they’re being read—that the reading is for them?

But the mysterious mechanics of the social platform have turned out to be a boon. We may not know exactly why a video shows up in our feed, but we know it isn’t strictly arbitrary. Each user’s For You page is distinct, as idiosyncratic as a fingerprint. The company gave a vague description, in a press release, of how its recommendation engine works: “While different people may come upon some of the same standout videos, each person's feed is unique and tailored to that specific individual,” the release explained. The algorithm ranks videos according to where you’re located, and how likely you might be to interact with it based on all the other videos that you’ve commented on, liked, favorited, or even just watched to the end.

That algorithmic personalization serves to legitimize, in its way, the work and messaging of the spiritualists. “Nothing you see is by chance,” says Trevino, enunciating the belief on which his practice is based. “And even though a message may not resonate entirely, there's something in that message that you were meant to see.” TikTok, too, imposes meaning onto a stream of videos that might otherwise seem random. Many that offer spiritual guidance open with a claim along the lines of, If you are seeing this video, that’s by design. On a technical level, the claim is absolutely valid: whichever tarot readings were placed into your feed got there for a reason. It’s a calculated surprise, generated by TikTok exclusively for you.

“If you're watching tarot readings, you're going to get more tarot readings,” Trevino says. “But if you're watching more tarot readings you're of the vibration of accepting those messages.” In other words, if a user is seeing a lot of tarot readings on their For You feed, it is likely they have become interested in tarot, started doing research on the subject, and have a good sense of the personal benefits they might experience from consuming spiritual content. “I also have had people telling me [they’ve] never seen tarot readings before,” Trevino says. But then one day they come across one of his videos. “It sort of sparks this thing where people start getting more into it and more into it.” The algorithm pushes this process right along: If you mean to see tarot readings online, then TikTok will give you tarot readings that you were meant to see.

The vagaries of the recommendation engine can also be a source of meaning for the creators. “I love that I can put out messages and have no idea how and to whose page [they] will end up on,” says another popular spiritualist who uses the app, Argus Kaine (105,000 followers). “It really gives a sense of meaning when a reading finds you and accurately relates to your situation.” Sometimes Kaine will do a series of tarot piles and send them out as separate videos. Viewers may come across more than one pile from the same reading series on their For You feed. It’s rarely consecutive—TikTok tries to avoid showing two videos in a row made by the same creator—but it could happen in one session with the app. Kaine doesn’t see coming across two of his readings intermittently as a glitch, though. Maybe the viewer needed to see and glean meaning from both, he says. “It shows how deeply connected we truly are.”

It’s a curious symbiosis that TikTok and tarot have reached, where the appeal of the latter can be enhanced by the effectiveness of the former. For better or worse, TikTok’s algorithm gets to know its users so well that each For You feed scans as fate, showing you exactly what you needed to see—and, for some people, providing an opportunity to grow or heal.

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