Danielle Villasana/Redux, for Rest of World
Sertaç Taşdelen, a Turkish entrepreneur and creator of the fortune-telling app Faladdin, does his best to resemble Aladdin’s genie. When I recently visited his coworking office in downtown Istanbul, Taşdelen was wearing an electric blue jacket, white trousers, and a fluffy button-down shirt, and his bearded, square-jawed face carried the mischievous smile of the fictional jinn. “Faladdin is my alter ego,” Taşdelen said of the psychic he plays in the app. “If I quit business today,” he whispered, leaning in, “I’d be a gypsy fortune-teller living in a caravan.”
In Apple’s App Store, Faladdin describes itself as “far beyond a fortune telling app.” The description states that it can predict one’s destiny “by evaluating a person’s past.” It does this by bringing the Turkish tradition of coffee fortune-telling into the Internet age. For centuries, Turks have boiled coffee grinds and water in the same pot, which leaves a residue that practitioners can read like a Rorschach inkblot. Thanks to Faladdin — and at the expense of Turkey’s traditional tellers — in-person consultations are no longer necessary. Every day, more than one million Faladdin users upload photos of their coffee cup grinds, and Taşdelen’s team provides personalized “readings” of them within 15 minutes. Of these readings, 700,000 are in Turkish, 200,000 are in Arabic, and 100,000 are in English. With its flamboyant advertising and bombastic claims, the app is certainly ripe for mockery. Yet since its launch in early 2017, more than 20 million people, mainly from Turkey and the Persian Gulf, have downloaded Faladdin. The company has a million-dollar annual ad budget, which it plans to use outside of Turkey, and 30 employees, with plans to expand in the coming year. In Turkey, it ranks first in the Google Play store’s Lifestyle category, ahead of Tinder.
Taşdelen is 37, and he learned fortune-telling (fal in Turkish) from his mother Binnaz, who authored a popular book on the subject. For more than three decades, she ran a pharmacy in the Turkish capital of Ankara, where the future entrepreneur worked after school. As his mother chatted with customers and filled prescriptions, she would make Turkish coffee and tell their fortunes. “They said, ‘It is your fal that cures us, Aunt Binnaz, not the medicine!’” she recollects in her book. Her son didn’t expect to follow in her footsteps. After studying business, Taşdelen landed a job at Ernst & Young in the early 2000s and was sent to Dubai to work as a consultant. But corporate culture depressed Taşdelen, and at 23, he signed up with a talent agency and began modeling for Armani. “No underwear shoots please; we can’t explain it to our customers,” warned his boss at Ernst & Young.
Still, he was restless. Then one day, a chat with a Turkish colleague who had read his mother’s book changed everything. “I wish Aunt Binnaz could read my coffee cup right now,” the man remarked. After emailing her pictures of the cup and receiving a reading a few minutes later, Taşdelen realized he had struck upon a way to earn his own fortune.
Taşdelen, right, worked in consulting and modeling before he created Faladdin.
During the Ottoman era, Islamic pilgrims introduced coffee to the region that now includes Turkey. Muslims savored it; according to legend, an ailing Prophet Mohammed was inspired to spread his Islamic empire after the Archangel Gabriel served him Turkish coffee. Istanbul’s Sufi monks sipped coffee to stay awake for nighttime prayers, and the city’s first coffee shop, or kahvehane, opened in 1554. The practice of kafemandeia (tasseography, or coffee-grind reading) spread in tandem; Turkish sultans employed astrologers to read their cups before battle. In 1892, American importers Chase & Sanborn used instructional fortune-telling cards to advertise their grounds, but the practice never caught on in the United States.
Faladdin might have met with a similar fate had it not been for Binnaz. What would later become one of Turkey’s most successful apps began as a WordPress blog, which Taşdelen created for his mother to help her enjoy retirement. Between 2010 and 2019, its human fortune-telling base snowballed from one (Binnaz herself) to around a thousand. Additionally, its tech evolved. The blog was replaced by a website and then eventually an app called Binnaz, which has been downloaded more than 2 million times on the App Store and Google Play. It was Binnaz’s success that inspired Taşdelen to create Faladdin as a kind of sister app. All these platforms exist in a legal gray area: while fortune-telling is technically illegal in Turkey, fortune-tellers are rarely prosecuted. For decades, real-life tellers have been forced to work underground. It’s a good job — many earn more than Turkey’s federal minimum wage of around $478 a month — but there’s always a risk that police might show up. By contrast, fortune-telling apps let tellers work more safely and set no limits on how much they can earn.
Six years after launching, Taşdelen decided to scale up. “On Binnaz, we had limited resources,” he said. “A real fortune-teller can deal with one customer at a time. We wanted something like a self-driving Uber; we’d get rid of the driver and only keep the vehicle.” That vehicle is (perhaps optimistically) described as an artificial intelligence (AI) engine. Developed in-house — and inspired, Taşdelen says, by AlphaGo, the first computer program to defeat a professional human Go player — Faladdin collects data from users and then draws language from a pool of preformulated interpretations. These readings are produced by a group of 30 contributors, including a dramatist, a psychologist, an ad director, and an author. “They are like the precogs in ‘Minority Report,’” Taşdelen said of his writers. “They possess the psychic ability to see the future, but of course we don’t house them in pools.”
Last year, Taşdelen began feeding these texts to OpenAI, the artificial intelligence platform cofounded by Elon Musk, in order to train Faladdin to autonomously produce fortunes. Taşdelen refused to elaborate when I asked about the technical details, but he did say that the AI was initially a massive failure. It spoke in broken sentences: “The seagull flies. The cat purrs. There is a notebook.” Its interpretations were dull. But Taşdelen claims the technology is improving, and it has since amassed more than 6,000 human-created fortunes.
A local proverb might explain Turkey’s attitude toward fal: “Don’t believe it, but don’t leave home without it.” So one morning, I opened Faladdin and was greeted by an image of Taşdelen in full genie gear. Ignoring the “Clairvoyance” feature, which invites users to tap the screen for a telepathic reading, I uploaded an image of my coffee grounds and asked the AI to predict my future. I was then given the choice of watching an ad and receiving an instant reading or waiting 15 minutes. When my reading came 15 minutes later, it was warm: “Welcome to the colorful world of Faladdin, Mr. Kaya.” There was character analysis: “The first thing that catches my eye in your coffee cup is that you are incredibly hardworking.” There were encouraging metaphors: “You will be as productive as a bee during this period, and you will accomplish incredible things.” There was a stab at poetry: “A tree that is bent down with the strong wind and a fallen-off branch that is floating in the air attract my attention. You prefer to live life as a whole. It is not your thing to neglect your family because of your work, or to neglect your social circles because of love, Mr. Kaya.” The sign-off was uplifting: “Someone, who wants to benefit from your 38 years of experience may soon make you an offer.”
No comprehensive study has been done on Turkey’s fortune-telling market, but Faladdin is surely disrupting it. It’s highly ranked in Apple’s App Store, and it currently has five million active monthly users. Faladdin uses an ad-supported freemium model, and its $5 million revenue — 60% of which comes from ads — is 12 times larger than it was three years ago. This is, of course, impressive and tragic. To meet Faladdin’s potential victims, I paid a visit to Melekler Kahvesi, Istanbul’s most famous fortune-telling coffeehouse, in the historic Beyoğlu neighborhood. It was a bright September afternoon, and a young couple was sitting outside. Inside, newspaper clippings from the past two decades adorned the walls: stories about underground fortune-telling and of Melekler Kahvesi as a meeting point for young Turks, as well as pictures showing policemen patrolling its entrance and its dining room filled with college students. It would be difficult to find a venue in Istanbul that rests as much on its reputation.
Many fortune-teller coffee houses, including Melekler Kahvesi, are located on this street in Istanbul.
But that day, Melekler Kahvesi was mostly empty. A 20-something waited for a job interview; a senior fortune-teller played notes on a piano. A waitress wearing a headset whispered to me, “Will you order a fal?” as if taking orders for hashish. I asked for the menu. Alongside an advertisement for the company’s own fortune-telling app, it featured two price columns: one for coffee, and the other — five times more expensive — for “coffee read by angels.” As I drank an Americano that tasted like dishwater, fortune-tellers led customers with coffee cups off to private rooms. The clientele consisted mostly of students and retirees — those who have time during the day to spend in cafes. But there are different types of fal customers, and not all of them frequent Melekler Kahvesi. Around Taksim Square, smaller venues cater to tourists; in Istanbul’s business center, fortune-tellers offer quick lunchtime readings to white-collar workers.
“I want Murat,” a Melekler Kahvesi customer said from an adjacent table. Dressed up for the occasion, she was distressed to learn that Murat was on “indefinite leave.” “Murat’s work model consists of piling up money and disappearing,” a waitress explained, which the customer eventually accepted: “So much bad energy is involved in fal,so I suppose Murat is exhausted.” Another customer asked for his preferred teller. When he learned four customers were in line for her services already, his face fell.
Human unpredictability presents Taşdelen with opportunities and challenges. He has noticed that IRL oracles often demand more time and money for providing a service similar to his. He also says that most millennials prefer written communication to in-person encounters and want to avoid potential awkwardness by receiving fal via text. At the same time, Taşdelen says, Turks often treat oracles as friends and rely on them for “an irreplaceable human connection,” which algorithms obviously can’t provide. But he insists that users shouldn’t have to choose between one or the other: after all, somebody can use a meditation app in the morning and still go to therapy at night.
Taşdelen now hopes to expand his audience in the West. “My mother predicts we’ll conquer America,” he told me. But customizing a Turkish product for Americans, he admitted, is a challenge. Cultural codes differ; a reading in Turkish sounds silly in English. The temporary solution is to translate the readings into astrology. “For us, it’s pretty much the same thing,” Taşdelen confessed. “We used to say, ‘Oh, there is this tree in your cup, which points to financial difficulties.’ Now we’ll say, ‘Mercury started retrograding, which points to financial difficulties.’” Acknowledging that there is no science behind either method, he compared Faladdin, curiously, to the genetic testing service 23andMe, which he described as “not strictly science or entertainment, but a blend of both.” When I asked whether he used fortune-telling to divine his own company’s future, he skirted the question. He had foreseen the rise of the dollar during the 2008 financial crisis, he told me, despite the negative forecasts by many expert economists. “My banker called to ask how I predicted the exchange rate. I told her, I just felt it. Your Goldman Sachs forecasts don’t work; in the future, ask me instead.”
After conquering Turkey, Taşdelen now hopes to expand his audience in the West.
Recently, Faladdin has been the subject of a litany of complaints over privacy issues. Skeptics wondered how the app could be so precise in its readings. Did it screen iMessages? Spy on Photo Streams? The rumors first spread on social media; then CNN Turk ran an article about it. But the people I spoke to seemed unconcerned. Burcu Aydoğdu, a 24-year-old pharmacist from Istanbul, told me that she’d only delete Faladdin if surveillance was proven beyond a doubt. When I asked her about the AI behind Faladdin’s readings, she was ambivalent: “It kills the magic, of course, but as long as it predicts what happens in my life, I don’t think it matters.”
Taşdelen denies that he’s spying on anybody. “We don’t do that. We just consider the demographics that users give us,” he said. Faladdin wants to know four things about you: age, gender, job, and relationship status. From there, it’s not difficult to extrapolate. “Single people at a certain age consider marriage. Parents ponder prospects for their kids. Humanity’s algorithm,” he mused, “isn’t complex. Societal expectations make our worries quite predictable.”
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The surveillance debacle appeared to prove that Faladdin had passed the Turing test, and was indistinguishable from a real person. It also reflected how far ahead Taşdelen’s company is of its competitors: in Apple’s App Store, similar coffee-reading services are far less popular. And Taşdelen himself is becoming an icon. All around Cihangir, the preferred neighborhood of Istanbul hipsters, stenciled graffiti features Taşdelen’s face. During my visit to Faladdin’s coworking office, a technician showed me a feature the company was beta testing: she fondled her iPhone like it was a magic lamp and the app produced a fawning response that evoked a fortune cookie’s message. Again, Taşdelen’s image hovered in the background.
Faladdin’s business model depends in no small part on irrational belief. It dances along the disappearing border between the unknown algorithms of new technologies and ancient prophetic traditions, teasing the possibility that it might just know something we don’t. Is suspending disbelief in technology any different than doing the same with religion? We give Faladdin our consent and data so it can predict our desires and anticipate our next move, the same way a Netflix recommendation or a Google search autofill might. This can be disconcerting, but many people feel otherwise. As Faladdin’s success attests, we clearly take some kind of comfort in being seen and in having choices made for us, without being forced to deal with another person’s judgment.
I used Faladdin two more times before I forgot about its existence. Then, early one morning as I was heading home after a long night out, a notification popped up on my iPhone. “Did we make a mistake in one of our last interpretations?” it read. “Is everything ok? I’d love to hear from you.” Drunk and caught off guard by the message, I closed the app. The next morning, I woke up and read the texts again. Why was Faladdin still on my phone? Did I really want it? As I considered getting rid of the app, I had an epiphany about what glues most of us to our screens: the idea, however corny, that our fate is tied to something bigger than ourselves. I deleted the messages, but decided to keep the app.