The main reason Morgan agreed to take the train from her parents’ house in the St. Louis suburbs into the University was to get her dad off her case. Morgan’s father was convinced that his 28-year-old daughter lived in New York mostly because she liked how convenient it was to get around the city. Not because she was a journalist and New York was the media capital of the world; not because all of her college friends and professional colleagues lived on the East Coast. No, it all came down to public transportation—at least according to her dad.
“We have a perfectly good light rail here in the Lou,” her father had said. “Remember that this city once hosted the Olympics and the World’s Fair. Give it a shot!”
Thus, Morgan had agreed to take the light rail to the event she was reporting on, the annual Infopendium Summit, fully aware that her father’s suggestion that she try the local train was his unsubtle way of suggesting that she move back home permanently. After a few stops, Morgan had to admit that the light rail wasn’t that bad. It was not a comprehensive public transportation network like the New York City Subway, but it was much quieter. She still wasn’t moving back home, but she enjoyed the ride. She could even stretch out and do a little work from her seat.
At the moment, that work consisted of gathering more background about Infopendium on her smartphone. Like any internet user—and certainly any tech journalist—Morgan was familiar with the basics of Infopendium. She had vivid memories of her eighth-grade history teacher telling her that anyone found copying from the free internet encyclopedia for their research paper would get an automatic F. Her sophomore year of college, a boy on her floor had gotten a kick out of editing the page for Plato to state that he was a “Hawaiian weatherman,” an edit that had briefly remained up on the article. And just last night, Morgan found herself reflexively searching Infopendium on her phone to read about the historical Princess Margaret while binge-watching episodes of The Crown with her folks.
But even though Morgan was no stranger to Infopendium, as she started to do her preliminary research, she came across a few things she hadn’t known. Infopendium was the fifth most-visited website in the world—much higher than she’d thought—receiving 70 million views per day, even though it was blocked from the world’s largest internet-connected population by China’s “Great Firewall.” It was also the only nonprofit site in the top 10. Although in theory, anyone could edit the site, in practice, it was maintained by a much smaller group of super-editors who speedily updated its information and removed inappropriate content. Those super-editors were the people Morgan had proposed reporting on when she pitched the piece to Tech Geek.
As the train sped into the city, Morgan read about Infopendium’s founder, Peter Budd, on her phone. He was a cyber-utopian from the earliest days of the internet. What would he think about the modern internet, with its sinister surveillance capitalism? Now that could be a good angle for the story.
Or not. The “disappointed internet founder” trope was way overdone these days… It seemed like everyone was depressed by the internet’s failed potential. For every crowdfunding campaign that had reached its goal and raised millions of dollars for disease research, there was a social media campaign that had successfully misled millions of voters. Yes, the internet had enabled e-commerce and e-learning and so much more. But it had also produced extreme social polarization, empowered cyberbullies, and offered new tools to authoritarian regimes.
Morgan sighed and stared out the train window, thinking that there was no way to pique the public’s interest in Infopendium—to make it “sexy,” as her editor was always suggesting. Tech journalists loved covering the other top websites: the racial bias of Google’s search algorithm; how an Instagram influencer had made millions of dollars from a 15-second video; the blatantly false tweet from one of the President’s supporters, which had been retweeted hundreds of thousands of times before Twitter took it down, sparking a national debate about free speech on major tech platforms… For the other platforms, there was always something scandalous to write.
But Infopendium was just a plain informational resource: white background, black text, and old-fashioned cerulean blue links. Infopendium was completely free to the public, didn’t display any ads, and didn’t collect your personal information—all of which was nice, and therefore unlikely to spark outrage. At this point, it was practically a public utility, and who cares about the details of the electric grid?
If she were honest with herself, Morgan knew that her pitch to Tech Geek about the Infopendium conference was a bit of a Hail Mary. The conference happened to be in St. Louis that year, where her parents lived, and where she would be visiting for the July 4th holiday. She could stay a few extra days with the parents, save some money with their free food, and rent out her apartment over the holiday with Airbnb for some much-needed cash. Writing a freelance story for Tech Geek would give her a little boost of about $300 and keep her portfolio from stagnating. Since Morgan had been laid off from her full-time position at Tech Geek earlier that spring, she was now pitching them stories as an independent contractor. Though she tried not to take the layoff personally, it was nonetheless painful to work so hard selling stories to the exact same boss who fired her. The feelings of repeat humiliation in her waking life reminded Morgan of her recurring nightmare about botching an audition for the high school play. In the latest iteration of the dream, Morgan had to re-audition because the play was being revived for her ten-year high school reunion.
Morgan felt eyes staring at her on the train. She turned and saw a teenage boy dressed in a gray polo shirt buttoned all the way to the top. He had curly bangs and intense unkempt eyebrows. “Are you going to the Infopendium conference, by chance?” he asked.
Morgan shot a puzzled look to the younger passenger, whose address had seemed so abrupt. She guessed that he must have noticed the yellow press pass she was wearing around her neck, a keepsake from when she had a full-time reporter position. “Yes, I’m covering it as a freelance reporter for Tech Geek,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Selling each article individually,” Morgan explained. She resisted the urge to vent about freelance journalism to this kid. No health insurance or benefits. No income stability. An endless cycle of pitching, rejections, and unanswered emails. The kind of life that made you consider moving back home with your parents in St. Louis.
“Awesome, a journalist!” he said. “That is so cool!”
Surprised, Morgan laughed. “Thank you! Journalists don’t get much love these days,” she said. “Some folks think we’re the enemy.” She narrowed her brown eyes behind her cat-eye frames the way she imagined an enemy might, then smiled.
“Well, I think journalists are very important,” the boy said warmly. “If there weren’t journalists, we editors,” which he said with obvious pride, “wouldn’t have the sources that we need to back up all the knowledge that goes on Infopendium. The Infopendium community has this policy, you see. It’s called ‘We Need Better Sources.’” Morgan noticed this boy’s voice, which was already a bit too loud for a nearly empty passenger train, became even louder when he referenced the policy, as if he were reciting the Scout Law. He then continued in a more natural tone, “All information that’s published on Infopendium should first be published on credible third-party sources. But in order to do that, we first need good journalism! That’s why I’m very concerned that American newspaper companies are struggling so much in this economy.”
So he was outgoing and precocious, just like her older brother had been. “So am I, kid…” She waved her hand. “I’m Morgan, by the way.”
“Alex,” he said. “Or user Alex718 on ’pendium. 718 is one of New York’s area codes.”
“I’m aware,” Morgan said with a smirk. “Might I be in the presence of a fellow New Yorker?”
Alex nodded vigorously. “I’m just in town for the Infopendium Summit. Oh, and also to visit Washington University in St. Louis. Sitting in on some Urban Planning classes. Though I have actually applied early decision to Stanford next year. They have this ‘Cities of the Future’ program.”
“You’ve got it all worked out,” Morgan said. She was still trying to gauge whether Alex was overconfident or just enthusiastic, but she was starting to think the latter. He really did remind her of her brother. “What do you write about on Infopendium?”
“A lot of topics, but I spend the most time on Public Transportation,” Alex said proudly. “We have this small global club of editors. My belief is that everyone around the world, whether they live in Wyoming or Timbuktu, should have access to free and trustworthy information about the public transportation networks in their area. So that’s why I work on the pages for the subway, or the bus stops, or the ferries, or whatever other types of transport are there. I would have taken public transportation all the way here from New York if it weren’t, at present, impracticable. And yes, you can certainly use this for your article!” Alex added when he noticed that Morgan had begun typing a few notes into her phone.
She chuckled. “Thanks, I just might. Has public transportation been a long-term interest of yours?” Morgan asked.
“YES! I’ve been a railfan for as long as I can remember. I used to beg my dad to take me on research trips to the East 180th Street Yard in the Bronx to see where the fleet of subway cars were repaired and stored. That was around age nine. I’m eighteen now and started editing Infopendium seriously five years ago. When I first started, the Infopendium pages on the New York Subway were very underdeveloped. Someone would search ‘Times Square Station’ and the encyclopedia wouldn’t necessarily route them in the right direction. They could mean the subway station for the eighth line, the seventh line, the street shuttle, or the bus terminal. It wasn’t clear! Fixing those subway articles was certainly a long disambiguation project.”
“Disambiguation?” Morgan asked, furiously thumb-typing. She had been told by several friends that she was the fastest thumb-typist they’d ever seen.
But before Alex could respond, they had arrived at their stop and needed to disembark. She stuffed her phone in her bag and they stepped off the train. Out on the platform, Alex took out his phone and snapped several photos of the light rail train as it departed. Then he turned and took photos of the train stop itself. “I’ll upload these to the ’pendium page for ‘University Station’ later today,” Alex explained. “Generally speaking, the public transportation system in St. Louis isn’t bad, but the related Infopendium pages could use some work.”
“Is that so? I should tell my dad. He’s a railfan, too.”
Together they walked from the MetroLink station to the sidewalk path and up toward the University campus, where the conference was taking place.
“Have you been to one of these Infopendium conferences before?” Morgan asked.
“Nope, it’s my first time,” Alex said. “While I wish it was someplace international, I definitely understand why they picked the midwestern United States this year. We’ve heard that a lot of Midwesterners feel left out of the broader digital revolution. But we don’t want them to feel left out of Infopendium’s free-culture movement. In fact, we want them to join us! Because we’ve got to ‘Keep Developing!’” Morgan noticed that he had raised his voice again like he had on the train. “That’s another of our core principles. At this year’s conference, we’re trying to identify areas where our information coverage is weaker or less comprehensive and how we can fix that.”
“Seems like a noble endeavor,” she said.
When they arrived at the doors of the University’s student union building, Alex suddenly seemed a bit flustered. “I’ve got to message a friend of mine to see if they’re coming,” he said. “I’m sure you have a busy schedule today as a member of the press. If you have time, though, you should come to the lightning talk I’m giving about Public Transportation on Infopendium.”
“Nice, thanks for the invite, railfan!” Morgan said. She did not actually have any formal interviews set up for the conference and was hoping to take an improvisational fly-on-the-wall approach. “And if I have follow-up questions for you, I guess I’ll just reach out to you on Instagram? TikTok? What’s your social media platform of choice?”
“Oh, I don’t use social media,” Alex said. “There’s no utility. No benefit to the greater good. Generally-speaking, those of us in the ’pendium community use Telegraph. It’s just old-school Internet Relay Chat, all text-based.”
“How very 2000s of you…”
Alex’s smile revealed a set of upper teeth that were still too large for his jaw. “HA! I suppose we like it because it’s simple, and also a lot more secure. Plus, our preference is to communicate in writing.” He stared at his phone and once again seemed concerned. “Oh, this is my friend Hildegard. Let me message them back. But please look me up on Telegraph! It’s user Alex718.”