How to Stay Grounded Online - a conversation with Justin Hanagan

The Realists interviews Justin Hanagan, the author of the brilliant newsletter "Stay Grounded Online" - whose goal is to establish healthy boundaries with the internet

How to Stay Grounded Online - a conversation with Justin Hanagan
The Realists in conversation with Justin Hanagan of Stay Grounded Online

I discovered Justin Hanagan’s superb newsletter Stay Grounded Online when I was running The Realists on Substack. The algorithm suggested I check out one of Justin’s posts and I was immediately impressed by the depth and brilliance of his essays. I find each and every new post an absolute must read, so I wanted to share with you a conversation with Justin about his motivation, goals and recommendations.

As we find ourselves in a brave new technological world, where Big Tech, Big Business and the attention economy are making us forget what it means to be human, it is absolutely crucial to “find the others” – other people who are resisting, reminding us that what is happening not normal and that it should not be accepted as such. A sense of fellowship and community feels absolutely energizing and uplifting.

I’m honored to have this conversation with Justin as the first in a series of interviews with other people actively working to create a better world for us all.


Can you introduce yourself and tell us what inspired you to start your newsletter Stay Grounded?

I started Stay Grounded for the same reason most non-money-generating projects get started and that's because I wanted it to exist and couldn't find anyone else doing it.

I saw tech (and political) journalism frequently covering the pitfalls of social media, but the option of not using it (or at least not carrying it with you 24/7) was an idea I just never saw floated. It was as though everyone was talking about the problems with cigarettes, and possible ways we could improve cigarettes, but nobody wanted to say "smoking is an optional thing to do". That's why my first real post was called "Nobody's forcing you to be here" because it felt like something someone needed to say. And to be clear, I am actually pretty defensive of "mainstream" journalism's ability to inform. But I also view professional journalists as human beings whose business model is/was dependent on these platforms. It's kind of like how on LinkedIn everyone cheerfully proclaims that they love their job and that it gives their life meaning. That's just so clearly, obviously false, but everyone has to pretend it's true, because being honest about it could risk their livelihood.

My original plan was to write a book combining step-by-step "how" posts, with essays explaining the "why", but nobody will publish a first-time book unless you have an established following. It's all about clout these days! But I'm also kind of glad the way it's turning out because I can better adapt to the times, and go on tangents like with the "AI" hype bubble we're seeing. But most importantly, I get to meet a lot of people like yourself who have also been talking about this topic. It's been a good lesson for me that if you have a song in your heart let it out, gosh darn it!

I wonder where your plans for a book stand? Is it something that is still a goal of yours?

Absolutely still a goal, and if I can grow the newsletter up to a substantial size, I will try reaching out to a publisher again. The world of publishing is very risk-averse, which I get.

What is the ultimate goal of Stay Grounded?

I suppose if we're dreaming big, I think the goal would be to return the internet, for most people, back to a place for supplementing their life, not supplanting it. By that I mean turning to the Internet only when a better option isn't available.

A lot of tech is created with good intentions, but it's our society and economic incentives that ruin it. Take video calls for example, that tech was invented with the goal of improving connections with loved ones while away. But in practice it makes it easier to be away, because socializing with loved ones doesn't generate revenue, so it becomes less of a priority.

The internet is amazing for connecting like minded people (example: this convo), but we're seeing a side effect where it's getting so easy that all socializing is increasingly moving online, which is worse than how we did socializing before the internet. We bought a bunch of computers, wired them together, burned a ton of fuel to power them, all to do socializing worse than before!

That all said, the question was about goals and I have a personal philosophy that goes "Any political theory that begins with 'if only everyone would just' is doomed to fail". So speaking more realistically, my goal has always been to provide a bridge — an off ramp — to the real world for anyone looking for it.

I think there's a reasonable expectation out there that anyone who figured out a healthful way to approach the internet is now unreachable via the Internet, but I want to demonstrate that with some organization, you can enjoy benefits without letting the bad stuff get its tentacles into your brain.

A screenshot of Stay Grounded's homepage
A screenshot of Stay Grounded's homepage

Imagine you are granted the power to have one Stay Grounded message or post go viral – advice that is widely read and implemented by millions of people. What would it be? And why?

Probably the AIR Method, my guide for slowly winding down screen time.

I somewhat foolishly thought I could type it up with some nice graphics, post it to Reddit, and it would just become this sort of official thing that would be the top result anytime someone googled "phone addiction". When that didn't happen I learned an important lesson about marketing in today's era and gained some real perspective and sympathy for the journalists I was so critical of. They are not competing intellectually and fairly in a "marketplace of ideas", they are trying to stay afloat in a rushing sewer of low-effort SEO-optimized garbage. That said - the intro to the AIR method is still my top viewed post even though I had like one tenth of the subscribers at the time it was posted so people are finding it.

I also wouldn't mind if one of my more essay-ey essays went viral because the conversations they inspire are what I enjoy most and what keeps me going. "Reddit is a Dying mall" went sort of viral on Mastodon and on Substack Notes when Ted Gioia "restacked" it, which felt great, because he's foremost a culture and jazz critic and his audience is not a techie audience.

The people I most want to reach aren't techies or journalists, they're the artists, scientists, and other creators out there questioning their sanity. I want to be a voice that says "If you're crazy then I'm crazy, because this all seems really weird to me too."

What is one of the most fascinating things you have learned while working on Stay Grounded? Something that surprised you?

I have been unhappily surprised by how awful and manipulative a lot of companies are willing to be.

A "fun" stat I learned is that (something like) 99% of the profits for pay-to-win mobile games come from 5% of players. Learning that really struck home how targeted and predatory tech companies will get if we allow them.

A positive thing that surprised me is just how many people seemed to pick up what I was putting down. I expected I would need to do a lot more convincing of some basic premises, eg: social media isn't healthy. So at the beginning I was very careful to cite statistics and make a strong case for harm before getting to my main point. But that doesn't make for an enjoyable read, and it turns out people didn't need much convincing. A lot of us can feel that this stuff is bad, even if we can't put the "why" into words, so that's what I focus on now: Translating corporate sales-pitches into something humans understand, and share the tools I know (and that people have shared with me!) for keeping healthy boundaries.

What are your top 3 favorite resources about digital wellness?

You mean outside of The Realists? 😉 This may surprise you, but I actually am not a big self-help or wellness sort of person. I try to eat healthy, exercise and do the good things, but only in service of other more meaningful goals.

I think it's easy to get obsessed with optimizing for optimization's sake. I do have a penchant for tweaking and adjusting, but my goal with "digital wellness" is to fuss less about managing my devices, not more. I am actually not interested in reducing my screen time to zero, just like I am not interested in never eating junk food again. BUT I do have some recommendations!

  • Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman is IMO, the only productivity book anyone should need. It's the only one, AFAIK, written for people who will die one day, which is me and probably most of your audience. I like to point out that big tech "innovations" often promise "saved time", but time is not something that can be "saved", and this book is where I first encountered that idea. The average person today is so much more "productive" than 99% of humans who have ever lived. So if we don't consider our ancestors to be failures, and yet we are having feelings of not doing or being enough, the reason is clearly not because we aren't using the right time management app.
  • Finite and infinite Games by James Carse. Nothing to do with digital wellness, but informs every aspect of my life and writing. This is such a unique book and hard to describe. It often gets shelved with "new age" which I just feel is totally wrong, though I see the connection. Carse does masterfully what I try to do, which is show readers something they know, but maybe phrased in a way that helps them visualize connections they weren't conscious of. I found this in a used book store when I was like 17 and I still think of its lessons constantly.
  • Not wellness either, but "This Week In Tech" is one of my favorite podcasts and the only "people-talking-in-a-panel' styled ones I listen to. It has been around since 2005, and the host, Leo Laporte, has been in tech media since the literal beginning. He'll regularly have a panel of older guests who have been around long enough to remember the before times, and have seen Silicon Valley go off the rails. It's not anti-tech by any stretch. They are often very into shiny new gadgets and the latest trends, but it's never presented in the hyper-capitalist tech-bro utopian way. Leo runs a Mastodon instance too, where I have my account, and has been criticizing the mental health effects of Twitter long before it was fashionable. 

How can we follow and support your work?

I write at
My photos are at Justin.Earth.
I am (still) using Substack, but working on a move to my own site, where I can have all my feeds in one place, so I've set up a Patreon in anticipation of that. I'm on Mastodon, and I recently started a Flipboard feed where I put articles (and occasional videos) I encounter that are similar to what you'd find on Stay Grounded. It can also be followed by RSS, you don't need Flipboard to follow it.