Facebook just published a list of the most-shared U.S. news stories of 2011 and right behind understandable links to Japan earthquake coverage and parenting advice is the now notorious story about people's zodiac signs changing. Not only did CNN's article clarifying that your star sign does not actually change due to the earth's wobble (and earned an eye-popping 293K Likes), a Huffington Post slideshow (302K Likes*) featuring more details about a mysterious 13th Zodiac sign Ophiucus also made the top ten. As an enthusiastic astrology professional Matthew Currie explained to us at the time, neither of these stories were actually news, but they were most certainly traffic-driving machines.
Doing a redux of the stories' phenomenal success and revisiting our conversation with Currie shows not only the incredibly enduring popularity of astrology but also teaches us a little bit about the formula for viral succes on the web. Main takeaway: People love to argue and complain on Facebook.
To jog your memory a little bit, the story of the changing Zodiac sign started with an easily misinterpreted story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Local astronomy instructor Parke Kunkle (yes, that's his real name) suggested to the paper that the Earth's wobble meant that the Zodiac calendar everyone's been using since at least the disco-fabulous astrology explosion in the 1970s was about a month off. And then millions of people thought they'd have to start reading a different horoscope and become new people. And what about all those tattoos of now obsolete zodiac symbols? Well, they evidently took to Facebook by the millions to share the news and talk about it. It was all bunk, astrologers and astronomers alike said. But the fact the two groups sort of united in clarifying the story was evidently a big deal, we were told, as the two groups really don't get along or agree on anything. Ever.
As the story was flooding Facebook feeds in January, Currie -- also known as "Matthew the Astrologer" -- explained to us that astronomers are always up to dirty tricks like this, challenging the field of astrology with their so-called facts and scientific research. In fact, the zodiac that astronomers use for mapping the constellations is not the same zodiac that astrologers use to determine horoscopes. A change in the position of the stars on the astronomers' Zodiac would not affect the divisions of the sky that astrologers link to star signs.
But why would an astronomer take such a jab at astrology? Because they're vindictive and want to debunk the field of astrology? Because they're just mean?
Not at all. In fact, it's all because of some shady journalism and eager, presumptuous Facebook sharers. According to an interview between science blog io9 and astronomy Parke Kunkle the astronomer credited with making the "discovery" that lead to the New Zodiac, the findings were completely taken out of context. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune caught wind of some research from the Minnesota Planetarium Society on whose board Kunkle sits and reached out for an interview, during which Kunkle explained the basic process of "precession" that causes the earth's axes to wobble ever so slightly, shifting the location of stars in the sky over thousands of years. Kunkle told the AP this in an interview following the viral release of the original:
"Astronomers have known about this since about 130 B.C.," Kunkle told The Associated Press Friday in his office at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, his phone ringing constantly, as it had since the article came out. (One person had even demanded: "Give me my sign back.")
"This is not new news. Almost every astronomy class talks about it."
Then the internet caught wind of the whole affair, making the Zodiac controversy story one of the biggest viral sensations of the year. While Facebook's includes only three of the articles -- a Washington Post story made it on the list at No. 33 -- the actually reach of the story in the number of articles published and shared is undoubtedly somewhere in the many millions. And while there was an initial freak-out over the new Zodiac, both the CNN and Washington Post articles focused on debunking the rumor, a sure sign that people are actually more interested in keeping their friends updated with the freshest, most accurate information. (The Huffington Post story, by contract, still bears the misleading headline "New Zodiac Sign Dates: Ophiuchus The 13th Sign.") Now, the whole affair is a part of Facebook history.
Of all people, Matthew the Astrologer seemed optimistic about the impact of this story, at the time. The debate that this viral hit has sparked might cause people to learn more about astrology and maybe even take it more seriously. "Astrology needs to be brought down to earth because it does work," Matthew told me. Realizing I hadn't even asked about Ophiucus, the mysterioius 13th sign. He did not mince his words in his explanation. "As far as the 13th sign goes, basically that's a load of crap. There is 13th constellation called Ophiuchus that exists in that band of the sky but to the best of my knowledge Ophiuchus has never been considered a sign."
Well, the whole farce didn't fool Rachel Maddow one bit. She's definitely never ever changing her star sign.
*Facebook's methodology for compiling the list of most shared articles including all types of sharing including use of the Like and Share buttons as well as people who manually copy-pasted the story's URL in a Facebook status update or email.