DU Alumni

Emergent Digital Practices degree sets the stage for alum’s creative innovations

Alumnus Justin Gitlin is one of the founders of social network Ello. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Alumnus Justin Gitlin is one of the founders of social network Ello. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Justin Gitlin is all about community.

As one of seven founders of Denver-based social-media network Ello, Gitlin and his company — creative computation studio Mode Set — are making headlines as the team behind the latest and greatest online community. The site’s claim to fame is that it’s ad-free and has pledged never to sell its users’ data.

“We’re not another Silicon Valley site. We’re homegrown out of Denver,” Gitlin (BA ’02) says. “We’re taking a stance against the current industry model of selling advertisements. People really seem to love that.”

Ello, he explains, is a hybrid of social media giants Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. Its basic functions are following people, posting images and text — but all in “a really nice way,” he says.

The site, built in 2013 and launched last year, has garnered a lot of attention and has users in the multiple millions.

But Gitlin’s real pride in the site is its ability to connect people in a more meaningful, deeper way.

“There’s a lot of research coming out about social media and how it’s isolating people,” he says. “One study came out and said that isolation is more damaging to your health than smoking cigarettes.”

That’s the type of social media Gitlin is working against.

“I think online social networks are incredibly important, provided they’re not just there to keep us clicking to make advertisers money,” he says. “The people on Ello who use it and engage it the most are having deep conversations with each other; they’re sharing stories and art and writing a lot about it.”

Offline, Gitlin is connecting people the old-fashioned way — in person. But still with a modern twist.

He’s the brains behind OhHeckYeah, a series of community-building, interactive videogames that he launched in downtown Denver last summer. On 15 different nights spread over the course of two months, the project took over the Denver Theatre District’s giant LED screens — which normally display advertising — and turned them into a gaming street festival.

“I like to refer to it as making magic in the street,” says Gitlin, who acts as the program’s game programmer. Here, he says, strangers “connect together by playing together.”

“We’re providing a safe place where people of all types play games together. They had a shared experience; we weren’t all staring at our phones,” he says. “It’s using the same technology we can build a social network with, to a large degree, but rather than online, we’re using it to bring us together in real life to have a shared experience.”

Mode Set collaborated with other Denver organizations, including the Downtown Denver Partnership, the Bonfils Stanton Foundation, the Denver Art Museum and the Colorado Symphony, which wrote the soundtrack for the video game. Gitlin says the project was a testament to how different people can come together to create something meaningful.

“I’m a software developer, but working with the Colorado Symphony on how to come up with music for this game. It’s just an incredible collaboration.”

And one with what he calls “mind-blowing” results.

“You saw a small child playing a game with a homeless person. You saw people hugging and high-fiving,” he says. “It was pretty amazing to see how it all turned out.”

Mode Set is continuing the project and taking it to multiple cities. The company already has plans to bring OhHeckYeah to Boston in May as a partnership with Northeastern University.

“It’s easy to lose a sense of community,” Gitlin says. “But I think when you connect people with diverse backgrounds, you can make a much stronger, effective community in a bunch of different ways.”

At DU, Gitlin was a double major in computer science and emergent digital practices — a DU-specific major that brings together art, design, media, culture and technology studies in a hands-on, collaborative environment.

“I’m using everything I learned in my double major today,” he says. “The EDP and computer science degrees were the precursor to the work I do every day, both for my day job and my digital art side projects.”

And he feels especially fortunate, he says, to have studied in Denver, where tech-savvy startups are launching on a near-daily basis.

“Starting my career in Denver and having the opportunity to work with so many talented people has brought me to my current place,” he says. “All of the people you meet along the way may become your boss, give you a referral, or even just spark an idea that leads you to your next chapter. It’s all about working hard in your field and being a good community member. Share the wealth and treat people right, and you’ll go as far as you can dream.”



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