Short (official) bio:
Jessica Vitak (PhD, Michigan State University) is an associate professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is a subject matter expert in data privacy, surveillance, and ethics, and her research examines the tensions people experience when making decisions about disclosing sensitive information. Her research is also heavily focused on empowering people through education and other tools that can help them make more informed decisions when using technology. For more information, see https://pearl.umd.edu.
I attended Elon University in North Carolina for my undergrad, an amazing small, liberal arts school. There I fell in love with media studies. I can’t speak highly enough of the School of Communications there and the impact it has had on me academically. I worked at the radio station (WSOE) all four years, including a year as GM, and was an editor for the weekly newspaper (The Pendulum). I graduated in 2002 with a dual bachelor’s degree in communication (broadcast and corporate) and journalism.
After college, I moved to the DC area and began a five-year stint as an editor at PR Newswire, an international news distribution service. I loved the job, but it wasn’t intellectually challenging enough (and I’d planned to eventually go to grad school since I was an undergrad). I attended Georgetown University, enrolling in their Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) program, and wrote my master’s thesis on the role social network sites play in changing the face of interpersonal communication, with a focus on potential negative outcomes. This research was facilitated by a survey of more than 600 Georgetown University undergraduates. A digital copy of the thesis can be accessed here (but please, don’t read it!).
While at Georgetown, I had the pleasure of working with the wonderful folks at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. I coauthored the Project’s Digital Footprints report, released in December 2007, and its Teens & Video Games report, released in September 2008, and later served as a consultant while at MSU.
While writing my thesis, I became very interested in the concept of social capital, thanks in large part to a recently published article by Nicole Ellison, Cliff Lampe, and Chip Steinfield. After making the decision to pursue a PhD, I wrote to Nicole to express my interest in attending MSU and working with her and was met with an enthusiastic reply. And the rest, as they say, is history. While I was accepted to other schools in (ahem) preferable locations, there was never a doubt in my mind as to which school was the best fit for me academically. So it was off to the icy wastelands of the north for the next three and a half years.
While at MSU, I spent a large portion of my time working on a NSF-funded grant in The Online Interaction Lab (TOIL) looking at collaboration on social network sites with Nicole and Cliff. The lab was quite productive, with presentations at ICA, NCA, HICSS, iConference, CHI, and ICWSM. Nicole and Cliff also served as some of the best mentors I could have ever asked for, helping me become the researcher I am today.
I then landed at the University of Maryland, where I started as an Assistant Professor in the iSchool in fall 2012. I received tenure in Spring 2019. I work with some amazing colleagues on a wide range of research areas, with my primary focus being on the privacy, surveillance, and ethical challenges people face in maintaining their privacy and managing their online identity in the digital age (see my lab page for more on our privacy and security research).
In my free time, I’m a crafter, video gamer, and baker/cook. I have a Zelda half-sleeve that was my tenure gift to myself, and I could play Breath of the Wild for years without getting tired of it. I’ve also been a big scifi/fantasy nerd since I was a kid, and I will read anything that Brandon Sanderson ever decides to publish.
Each Christmas, my family and I make 4000 cookies over 3-4 days and then give them away to pretty much everyone we know (see picture for some of the cookies from 2010). It’s uber stressful, but it’s also one of my favorite times of the year. I was even featured in this Eater article about mailing cookies during the holiday (highlight of my career)! I also live-tweeted my 2020 cookie weekend experience, if you want to see what happens behind the scenes.
I think it’s very important to have a strong balance between work and non-work spaces, so I make a concerted effort to carve out time to do fun and relaxing activities, and I encourage this in my colleagues and students as well.
If you’d like to contact me, I can be reached here.