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Faces of UMSI: Ben Zhang

Ben Zhang

Thursday, 10/13/2022

Ben Zefeng Zhang joined the University of Michigan School of Information as a PhD student in fall 2020. He grew up in Shaoxing, China and completed his B.A. in communication and English and literary studies at the University of Indianapolis. After graduating, Ben worked as a journalist and feature writer in Beijing. Reporting took him to different parts of China and South Asia, and opened him to data-driven storytelling about technology and culture. The experience inspired him to pursue a master’s in applied data science at Syracuse University.

Here, Ben talks about his journey to UMSI, where he’s finding success studying the intersection of identity, mobility, infrastructure, labor and the online platforms woven into people’s lives. 

Why did you choose to get your PhD at UMSI? When I was studying data science at Syracuse University, I was exposed to human-computer interaction (HCI) and social computing, and a lot of the experts I admired were from UMSI. 

What I was studying as a master’s student was closely aligned with my current advisors’ research interests. Oliver Haimson focuses on identity and identity transitions and Michaelanne Thomas is a sociocultural anthropologist who studies collaboration and sociotechnical infrastructures in constrained contexts. I met them in person during CSCW 2020 in Austin, Texas, and that was a very pleasant experience. 

Also, Ann Arbor is a really nice college town. I like outdoor activities, and I knew there were biking and running communities. I thought it would be nice to stay active and hang out with people who share similar interests. 

What are your current research interests? After I got to UMSI, I started a research project on social technologies and life transitions. One of the project goals is designing social technologies to better support people going through difficult major life events. I got the opportunity to work with a brilliant research team, and we had two papers accepted at this year’s CSCW“Social Media’s Role During Identity Changes Related to Major Life Events” and “Separate Online Networks During Life Transitions: Support, Identity, and Challenges in Social Media and Online Communities.” 

Following my research interest in studying HCI on a transnational level, my advisors and I decided to explore Asian diaspora communities in the U.S. for my pre-candidacy project. We focused on Chinese diaspora communities to understand their technology use and the challenges they face. 

During the process of data collection, the previous U.S. president issued an executive order to ban the Chinese social platform WeChat, so we were trying to understand the perceived impacts and participants’ reactions. We found negative consequences to the potential ban, including adverse network and economic effects and disruption of community-building efforts. To frame participants’ experiences, we proposed the concept of infrastructural migration.

For some, especially people with marginalized identities or low-resource individuals such as migrants, social media can function as infrastructure in everyday life. For instance, some people might use Facebook for employment opportunities or even for seeking critical resources. And the breakdown of platforms-turned-infrastructures could disproportionately impact marginalized communities and amplify social disparities. This work, “The Chinese Diaspora and the Attempted WeChat Ban: Platform Precarity, Anticipated Impacts, and Infrastructural Migration,” was also accepted to CSCW 2022. 

What are you working on now? I just passed my field prelim on “Mobility as a Multivalent Construct: Towards Equitable Data-Driven Mobility for Marginalized Workers and Communities,” and that process lasted several months but was pretty smooth. I got a lot of support from not just my advisors, but also my UMSI peers and committee members. I had one-on-one meetings with them where they helped me refine my ideas. 

Right now I am collaborating with fellow UMSI PhD student Cassidy Pyle on a paper about the role of algorithms in shaping migrant technology professionals’ mobility-related goals and aspirations. I’m also a regular member of a UMSI PhD writing group that meets weekly, which I have been part of for the past year. 

This fall I am working with Matthew Bui as his graduate student research assistant on the project “Asians in Southeast Michigan: Information Networks and Placemaking as Responses to Racist Violence (1980s-present),” which involves engaging Asian communities and some archival research. 

What kind of support have you received from your advisors? My advisors offer me strong support both academically and socially. A lot of small things when I first got here in the middle of the pandemic made me feel like I belonged. My advisors gave me postcards with notes and small gifts upon my arrival. Oliver also invited advisees to his backyard and hosted several socially distanced parties so we could get to know each other. That all made for a better transition to the in-person experience, especially when I was required to teach in-person as a graduate student instructor (GSI). 

How are you feeling about earning the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor of the Year Award? I feel very humble and lucky to have gotten it.  Several of my colleagues also definitely deserve that award. This award gave me the opportunity to join this year’s UMSI GSI orientation panel, so I got the opportunity to learn about how other GSIs teach and interact with students. It made me realize how much faculty members value our efforts.

What has surprised you while getting your PhD at UMSI? Work/life balance. I prioritize research, but I also try to find ways to recharge. For example, the process of proposing my field prelim wasn’t easy, but it helped me learn that I should have a separation between my work and personal life. I spent a lot of time working on my field prelim this summer, but I also took time off to recharge. I usually stopped working at 5 p.m. and went to the countryside to do gravel or road biking with local bikers in Ann Arbor.