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University of Michigan School of Information


Faces of UMSI: Somya Bhagwagar

Somya Bhagwagar is using storytelling to leave filter bubbles behind.

Since childhood, BSI senior and founder of Students of Umich Somya Bhagwagar has had two passions: storytelling and information security. At UMSI, she’s combining her passions by examining how we listen to and share each other’s stories in the digital age.

Somya grew up in Saginaw, MI, where her mother emphasized to her the importance of asking people about themselves.

“She’s a psychologist and an immigrant and she just had this whole philosophy that you can travel through other people’s stories,” says Somya.

“She would take me to the farmers’ market, and we would just go and talk to people. We didn’t really buy anything.”

Somya's passion for information security is just as homegrown.

“When I was a kid, I was paranoid because I didn't have much knowledge about how it worked,” she says. Growing up she remembers watching a movie where a character was able to hack into the webcam of another character’s personal computer.

“Ever since then I was like, ‘you can actually hack into a camera!’” She began studying how companies like Facebook were using her data, and in high school, she deleted her Snapchat account when the social media company changed its privacy policy. “When I was a kid, I was paranoid because I didn't have much knowledge about how it worked,” she laughs. Growing up she remembers watching a movie where a character was able to hack into the webcam of another character’s personal computer.

“Most people who know me well know that I scan my computer for cybersecurity threats fairly often. I won't open links; I won't open phishing things. I'm a very hyper-secure person,” she says. She also began to develop an interest in “filter bubbles,” an aspect of social media analysis she now studies in her classes at UMSI.

Filter bubbles, she explains, represent the way that social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram show their users new content: limiting their feeds to “bubbles” of topics and viewpoints that the platform has calculated they already like.

“I understand that they're labeling me and defining me and trying to analyze me, because in the end, like they're trying to keep you on their platform longer,” says Somya.

“I know I’m the product, not the consumer,” she adds.

Inspired by the photoblog Humans of New York, Somya started Students of Umich during her freshman year at the LSA Residential College as a way to engage her two passions and address some of her feelings of trepidation about meeting new friends at a new school.

“I found storytelling as a way to get out of that and to get out of my comfort zone, pop my filter bubble a little bit.,” she says. She hopes the account, which she is planning to pass on to a younger classmate upon her graduation this spring, will help to encourage other students to venture outside of their own filter bubbles too.

Though Somya’s interest in social media interactions and love of reading privacy policies made her a natural fit for the School of Information, she says she hadn't truly considered the BSI program until she and her family attended a UMSI event at the North Quad complex during parents’ weekend. Somya ended up speaking to an enthusiastic professor about her blog.

“They were like, ‘this is exactly the kind of content that we’re looking for here!” Her interest was piqued, and she signed up for the SI 110 (Introduction to Information Studies) course. She was instantly hooked.

Now, she says, “I’m literally in love with my major … I like the applicability of it. We had a whole unit in one class about how to use social media for entrepreneurship in marginalized communities or in communities with lower socioeconomic status and lower resources … we're studying real things that apply to the heart of America; things that will be the most useful and most effective.”

Somya appreciates UMSI’s unique approach to combining a technical approach with a human one.

“Not many schools are that interdisciplinary where you're building and looking at the consequences of what you're building,” she says.

Plus, “pretty much every faculty member has served at least a little bit as a role model to me.” Some of the research she’s done (available on her personal website) in classes includes a UX analysis of Twitter and a case study on information flow among Mumbai’s food delivery vendors.

When she isn’t interviewing her fellow students or doing photography for her blog, Somya is exercising with the Michigan Muscle Club, longboarding across campus or working on Hello University, a startup platform designed to connect students in China with students in the U.S. in order to break down barriers of culture and communication.

“Our goal is ‘boundless learning,’” Somya says.

Recently she has been prepping for her upcoming talk at TEDxUofM, the lesson of which she hopes will be “if you’re missing one piece of the story, you have a completely different perspective.” Along the way, she plans to connect her storytelling to the concepts of echo chambers, algorithms and filter bubbles.

“I wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me when I first started school that I would be a speaker for TEDx or start Students of Umich,” says Somya.

Her advice for all new or hopeful UMSI students: “You’ve made the right choice! Actually chase your passion. Don’t let surface level do it. This is your chance to find yourself.”