Elite Daily's Greg Dybec on "Other People's Lives" and the Future of Digital Media

Greg Dybec doesn’t like the word Millennial.

And that’s such a Millennial thing to say.

In the age of celebrity obsession, Dybec has the opposite reaction. His obsession is with strangers. 

As the former Managing Editor of Elite Daily, where he helped grow the site from a small blog to a globally-recognized media brand generating 30 million unique visitors each month, Greg is an author, journalist, and podcast host living the media-saturated dream. He also just helped launch a start-up, Wingtel, designed to dismantle the phone carrier industry: "Yes, like Verizon or AT&T, except you won't hate us."

It's not only that he's accomplished so much at the age of 27— it's that he's able to articulate the exact steps he took for the purposes of helping you do it, too.

Though Greg's jobs have been anything but relatable, his writing is. His book, The Art of Living Other People's Lives (Running Press, 2017), has spun off into a podcast, The Other People’s Lives show, where he and co-host Joe Santagato have an anonymous phone call with a stranger they found on the Internet.

Catching up with Greg, we learned about creating relevant content, self-promotion as a writer, and what exactly happened at Elite Daily after Bustle bought it from the Daily Mail in April. 

Beyond The Interview: OK, I'm going to get this out of the way because I think it's the more boring part of our interview, but I have to ask: From your perspective, what happened at Elite Daily and what did your departure look like?

Greg Dybec: I don't think there's anything negative about it. I, myself, am fully out of Elite Daily, but that's something I wanted. The short answer is: when we were acquired in 2015 by the Daily Mail, we had very different structures, from our traffic sources to the content. So this year they put us up for adoption, but I think the good news is that Bustle is a great publication because they understand the digital space and how to make money off it.

BTI: I've been laid off as a journalist before. Is there any security in the future of digital media?

GD: Honestly, I don't know if there is. I think what's good is that there was a time where digital media was not necessarily taking a nose dive, but the landscape was changing and everyone knew it was going to change. And I felt like everyone was kind of in denial for a while. I think the good thing now is that everyone is open and honest about how much it's changing and how much everyone's navigating through the dark to figure this out. People always need their news somehow, people always want an escape at their fingertips on their phone. So I think there'll be plenty of success stories along the way. But as far as stability and security, I don't know if there's much of it in that industry right now.

BTI: So then is the onus on young people like ourselves to go out there and make something for ourselves? We're in the age of the side hustle and the everything-entrepreneur —is that a crucial part to our sustainability?

GD: Ya I think it is. I think content creation isn't going anywhere. Where it finds a home is always going to change, and it might not always be straight-forward. It's on the content creators to find new things that can live across multiple platforms and in ways that we don't even know can host content creation yet. Who knows what's going to come out. It’s such a tough question to answer, but I think digital media as it stands, the shape might change but it is on any content creator to keep finding new ways to deliver, whether it's the content itself or the technology that can host that content.

BTI: In your book of essays you write about mining for work on Craigslist, helping feckless parents operate social media, stoner roommate shenanigans, moving in with a significant other for the first time, and the quarter-life crisis. Did you have to make it so fucking relatable? Was that the entire point?

GD: I don't want to say that it was the point because the last thing I want to do is ever sit down and feel like I'm writing a manual or a guide for Millennials (because I don't like the word Millennial.)

So it wasn't necessarily the intent, but the intent was to write honest, non-fiction stories about myself and the people around me. I definitely wanted to shed some light into that [digital media] industry, specifically because that industry is very misrepresented or strange. For so many people they just wake up and get their news and post these stories, they have their favorite sites and sites that they hate, and I don't know why people get so passionate about digital publishers, but you tend to forget that it's just English majors and journalism majors and people who are trying to make a living by telling stories. 

BTI: There's a scene where you stumble upon a sneaky little resource called Google Analytics in your work for Elite Daily. You become semi-addicted to the intimate and raw keyword searches people pop into Google. Do you think writers are naturally drawn to fantasizing about strangers' lives?

GD: Yeah, absolutely. I know I am, I can't even hide it anymore. It's engraved in so much of what I do. The title of my book and the podcast was one I've had for a while. A lot of the creative things I do are just driven by other people and their lives, the concept of strangers, and the fact that I live in New York City. You just pass so many people every day who are just living their own lives and going through problems and breakups and deaths, all the similar things that you are going through, but you're never going to know those stories, or you're never going to know that person. I've definitely come to accept it and see what else I can create based off that idea.

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BTI: What's the most surprising thing you've discovered during your podcast, Other People's Lives? Any common denominators among these strangers?

GD: I think the most surprising thing is how surprised I still get. We're talking to people who'd be deemed strange or have an alternative lifestyle or have some interest that's taboo, but I end up getting off the phone with them feeling like this person is so much more sure of themselves than I even am right now. Why are they the ones being so criticized for something, and I feel like I could just walk around normally? But this person is so much stronger than I am and it does turn out to be really inspiring. Sometimes you think [the podcast] is going to go down the road of shock value because some of the themes are so specific or out-there, but then you just have the most human conversations. You're talking to a complete stranger on the other line and you can relate to them so much.

BTI: Besides the podcast, which has already moved into the top 50 on iTunes in the Society and Culture category, what's your next move in media, if you're even staying in media?

GD: Media is tiring. I'm not going to say I'm burned out, but...I'll always love media, I'll always be interested in it. That's exciting. In terms of what I'll hang onto, I think I finally feel confident enough to just be that content creator. I don't want to leave that world, but I can't picture myself and going back and working for another outlet. But I want to keep creating projects that I can get out there. I'm with a start-up now. I'm working on a second collection of essays now. And I definitely want to see how far we can take this podcast.

BTI: What's some advice you can give to a writer who innately struggles with the self-promotion involved in social media? How crucial is it to be active on these sites?

GD: I think if you're a writer, you kind of understand the struggle of promotion. You understand how hard and lonely the writing process can be and how many iterations of stories you have to go through. There's a real mutual respect between writers. Just get to know people in the community because writers are really generous people. And that's something I did with promotion of my book too. I reached out to a lot of people I looked up to, people with bigger followings than I had. And I found that they were super generous. They read my book and they shared it, they told people. Writers are addicted to the process. It's sadistic and masochistic. You just love the pain, so you're never going to turn away from talking about that with someone else.

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Consistency is key. You might have to write 100 articles with two people seeing it before 10 people see it. But then after 10 people see it, 50 people see it. Putting in that work with writing, I think, always pays off. 

BTI: Do you have any advice for Millennials who are leaving college with debt and struggling to find jobs? You've surely interviewed a lot of them.

GD: I think you have to be entrepreneurial no matter what. It doesn't have to be the traditional definition of entrepreneurial where, "I'm going to start my own business." You can work for someone and be entrepreneurial. You can't feel like you're entitled, but Millennials are starting to hold the power. They have spending power and are running companies and businesses and taking over industries. I think we understand how far passion goes. I've seen people with less experience move up the ranks and create something just because they weren't afraid to throw their ideas out there and be innovative.

This almost sounds like bad advice, but you don't always have to play by the rules. Know your worth and know your value.

Find the company that you like, do research, find the people you want to reach out to, personalize an email to them, find their phone number, and put yourself on their radar. Maybe you'll be lucky and get hired on the spot because you impressed them. Or maybe one year down the line when they need someone to fill the position, they'll remember that you reached out to them before.

When you're working to pay back debt, that's going to make it a lot easier. Put in the work today.