At the intersection of HWY's 22 and 23 in Marquette county, Wisconsin is a town of approximately 1500 people. At the center of town sits an old granite quarry accented by waterfalls. It's home to the largest tree in the state and idealistic of many small central Wisconsin towns. It is the town of Montello, WI.
On a humid mid-summer day in 2009, I caught the storm chasing bug on a lonely road in the heart of Page Creek Marsh just southwest of Montello. It was the most impressive moment of my life! The storm structure was on a "different dimension". What if every thunderstorm looked like this? I wanted share this revelation with everyone! Little did I know my quest to share and understanding would take me on a path to social media revolution.
WHERE IT BEGAN
I first discovered weather when I was five watching storm clouds roll across our field. My family had a little bit of land south of Oshkosh, WI. Horses and geese, cats and dogs, farm tractors, heavy equipment; I was a tough farm boy at heart spending most of my time outside developing my connection with nature. When it came to severe weather we relied on TV for Warnings and air raid sirens for tornadoes. There was no Facebook, Twitter, or cell phones to warn us. No hype. No drama. Storms would just show up. At complete mercy of the storm.
Initially, I feared violent thunderstorms and the destruction they would bring. Thunderstorms took on an evil presence in my mind that threatened my family, animals, the house, and our land. The wind would bend the trees in a deafening "whoosh" sound. As I got older that fear turned to overwhelming interest. I wished for bad weather with an urge to learn and understand. It pulled me in like gravity...but we could never replicate the storms we had as a kid.
I discovered storm chasing in high school watching movies like Twister and TV shows. I understood the competitive nature of the meteorology so when I graduated I became a geology student at the University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh. I didn't know what my future looked like just yet. Storm chasing was never something I saw myself doing and I called those who did it "crazy". That held true until the summer of 2009 when frustration encompassed me. In addition to an unsettled personal life, storms were fleeting and nature produced them to spite me. It was unfair. If I wanted a storm I would have to go get it. Certainly not because I wanted to pretend I was Bill Paxton from the movie Twister lol.
One thing lead to another and suddenly there I was by myself in a town I'd never been on a road I'd never been watching the most impressive thunderstorm I'd ever seen. It was the lowest of lows and highest of highs. This was where it all began. Today my passion for storm chasing remains just as strong. How I've expressed my passion has changed many times over the years.
WILD WEST of SOCIAL MEDIA WEATHER FORECASTING
Until 2010, weather enthusiasts had been scattered across the internet in tight, closed groups. Interaction between groups and outsiders was non-existent. No leaders. Nobody with a backbone, few in it for the right reasons. Unless you watched videos on Youtube like I had to there was nowhere to learn. Nobody to talk to. Discount that I was a 19 year old kid, people would just blow you off. "Oh look, another "storm chaser". I'm too important to talk to you" types. They were too good for this new world. I was victim of the stereotype. The National Weather Service was too busy with "real life impact - by the book" stuff or didn't get paid enough to help a future storm chaser. If you didn't have a college degree in meteorology, good luck! I was dirt.
I went on the attack developing a work ethic that I've lived by since. I read all the books. Watched all the videos. Looked at all the websites. Watched all the storms. Studied the behavior of popular storm chasers. I taught myself. I always believed the weather community and local TV stations would love to mentor a young, decent looking young adult chasing storms around for science. I was very wrong. I was still dirt. Nobody cared.
I continued to learn more about storm chasing over the next year. I worked hard buying my first two camera's in spring of 2010; the same camera's I use today. Everything I did on my own. Nobody gave me anything, I didn't take anything. Didn't expect anything. I did the work. All I wanted was to express my passion, share my knowledge, try to make it better for other people like me in the future, and finally earn some respect. Along the way I would be humble and kind to people and treat them how I would like to be treated. Forecasts would be realistic and geared toward an educated audience.
My grand plan was to start a new thing called a "Facebook Page". The title of my first page was "the Wisconsin Storm Chaser". I quickly abandoned this page after watching someone else call themselves that name on TV. I finally started forecasting weather for page followers on RogueChaseWI and was thrilled to reach 100 facebook "Likes". I didn't totally understand the meaning of the name at first. I likened it to "I'm there but you won't see me". Over time I would come to understand exactly what it meant.
Back then I was so happy that 100 people wanted to know more about Wisconsin weather and storm chasing. It could only be through content that these people found me, obviously they were interested too! We could all learn together! Every post reached 100% of my followers. The audience was manageable. Posts appeared in chronological order. Things were quiet, life was good, and nobody made a big deal out of anything. It was perfect for passing along time-sensitive weather information. It was the wild west of social media weather forecasting.
Social Media Overload
Soon the National Weather Service discovered facebook. Television stations, storm chasers, storm chasing groups, storm spotting groups...everyone seemed to find it at once. At first most were bad at it (including myself) but over time they learned how to "use facebook". What had been my comfortable island oasis in the Wisconsin weather world began to shrink exponentially. I was fine with it; my audience was smart and educated. Groups formed quickly and interacted freely. The world of Wisconsin weather was free and open with no contested borders; no lines in the sand. Everyone was just trying to understand this new communication tool. It became an art and for the most part each page had a unique identity.
As the years passed new strategies and features began to emerge, some good and some bad. Ego's got in the way. People began to perfect the science of social media. My page audience grew to a whopping 250 likes but this time I wasn't satisfied. I worked extremely hard for my dedicated group of followers and always intentionally did things different from the rest. Followers felt like family.
On my 40 or so Wisconsin storm chases between 2011 and 2013, I met many people. Some good some bad. The best people I became great friends with. We all shared the same passion to predict and document real storms. I saw other pages accumulating "likes" much faster with minimal effort. We could do that easily, no problem! I just needed to change the page name. I was experimenting with web design. My friends and I could link resources and run our new page to the top!
The idea came to me on mountain near Park City, UT in the summer of 2012. Then in 2013 the facebook page Wisconsin Weather
was born. Today it serves the facebook end of a collection of projects including yours truly, WISCONSINWX.COM. When we started we wanted to post daily with our own forecasts, maps, and research. We figured our experience and knowledge could be a source of weather information. We could be a counter-balance to the NWS, not to challenge but to provide an alternate perspective. It was something we could all grow into.
It was at this time that the National Weather Service got it's act together. It became popular for second party pages to simply share the National Weather Service stories without actually doing anything. They started pumping out facebook posts daily. The NWS would prepare the story, the second party page would share the story, people would like page; many assuming it was the second party who created it. Once in a blue moon Wisconsin Weather would share stories from the National Weather Service we thought were good. We thought this was garbage from the start, a form of piracy. It became competitive. Suddenly we had to control what we said and how we said it, partially because of our increasing audience size but mostly because the social environment had changed.
TV meteorologists were getting organized too. Updates became more frequent. Weather enthusiast pages would share their stories too. Very quickly facebook filled up with weather information, mostly shared content. Job descriptions began to include daily postings on facebook. People literally get paid 40K per year to write prefect paragraphs, make pretty maps, and at the very least pretend like they care every single day. We couldn't compete with that.
Everything was changing. Facebook went from a nice, chronological timeline of stories into stories based on what was trending at the moment. Facebook understanding what they had cut organic reach in half. To get the other half pages would have to make very engaging stories or pay facebook money to push our stories too them. Facebook was about marketing and money now.
It was around this time that our page growth began to decline, eventually coming to a screeching halt where it is today(~7800). We only gains "likes" when one of our posts go viral. It's like we are whispering in a room of shouting people... and they are all shouting the same thing.
WHAT WE'VE BECOME
Facebook is still the best method of sharing weather information but it used to be better. Overtime it became a clustered mess of hype-fueled garbage, but that's been getting better lately. Forecasts went from having a fixed place in our timelines to an out of order free for all. If you pay facebook you can get you stories pushed to the top of mess. If you don't, you better make it bold and interesting or have an army of followers to share it. Of course you could always tag popular people who have nothing to do with you or your post and siphon them off that way.
When facebook introduced pages, pages drove facebook. Now facebook drives pages. For some companies it's a full time position. Statistics show that pages must post as often as possible to keep your audience engaged. Pages with large followings also tend to dominate our news feeds while smaller pages get pushed aside. There are pages for everything and nothing, and most of them are doing the exact same thing. Everyone looks the same, acts the same, says the same thing at the same time to the same people. The person who yell's the loudest get's all the attention. When your idea's do not agree with the mainstream it often reflects poorly on you. When you are wrong you can be viciously attacked. For some it is a drug. The ego-high they get from having thousands of virtual friends is better than chasing an actual storm.
From my perspective the National Weather Service has done a great job. In the case of violent weather the last thing you want is confusion or thousands of pages with conflicting predictions. Money is not an issue, they have all the resources and knowledge. They deserve to be the number one source for accurate weather information but they are running into a problem. Facebook users have reached a point of critical mass. The more you post, the more it desensitizes us. I get weather'd out just scrolling through my feed and weather is my passion
! I can't image what the average person feels.
Social media has grown into a giant pissing contest. Many people don't actually care what the other person has to say. Your fish is big, but mine is bigger! Fake people are encouraged, show-offs supported, while the small voice is crushed. People are allowed to falsify images, chase poorly, be mean to people. Meteorologists complain about amateur social media weather forecasts yes because they take away traffic and viewership. When their predictions are wrong they blame it on "model limitations". Either way I take it personal.
Today Wisconsin Weather has over 7800 facebook "likes" but for some reason our every day posts only about 800 or so.
Respect is earned. We are a group of experienced storm chasers and meteorologists with over 35 years of combined Wisconsin storm chasing experience. We create our own unique stories, content, and graphics like we always have. Occasionally we take time off work or school to drive 700 miles in 12 hours three states away only to see a 30 minute thunderstorm and still be back to work in the morning.
We differ in our predictions from most sources, say different things, write stories like this because we do not follow. We will not falsify images, exaggerate our experiences, spam the TV stations. We are not here to kiss ass, pull the party line, or follow the herd. We encourage independent thinking and leadership skills. We want to understand. Most of all we want to share what we learn with others. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
Storm spotters attack, exclude, and degrade storm chasers who according to them "clog all the roads and radio frequencies, for sport". They argue storm chasers are "only in it for the thrill" and will attack any who question their cultic, militaristic 1970's ideology. What we know know about severe weather today came from 60 years of storm chasing and research, not some guy sitting on his porch hammering out reports to the National Weather Service grasping his storm spotting pamphlet. We all get the training and we all send in reports.
Storm chasers make criticism easy. There's a lot of bad apples out there who seek not just the storm but for the attention. Even before they return home they are spamming local television social media pages with their pictures. They talk using big words, get into pissing contests, and take unnecessary risks while chasing. They exaggerate their storm chase to make it sound more dramatic and TV meteorologists eat it up. The more dramatic, the better!
So here I stand again today. I've read all the books. Watched all the videos. Looked at the websites. Watched all the storms. Done all the research. Put in the work. Chased all the storms and demonstrated year after year after year my knowledge and expertise. I am in debt to nobody but feel like I'm back where I started, buried behind years of stereotypes and social media garbage.
You'd think that someone who has years of real experience predicting and chasing over 100 real Wisconsin storms in non-textbook conditions in every corner of the state would be knowledgeable. That they would be worth having around. That they could add something to the conversation. With over 150 videos, time-lapses, documentaries and thousands of pictures. Not once have I been invited to speak on storm chasing. Just think of what we could accomplish together!?
For many years I wondered how there could be absolutely nobody there when I was learning storm chasing, but now I understand.
Wisconsin chasers simply run out of steam. Maybe they have difficultly pacing themselves in this short severe weather season with difficult chase terrain? Maybe they find preference the plains? or maybe they were given zero respect from their meteorological equivalents in the NWS offices and at the TV stations. The only time you heard of a storm chaser was when the new stations needed their footage. I refuse to be another victim of this twisted weather world. I will not cave or crumble. And all those who have buried me can thank themselves; you can't put this fire out.
Just like that special summer seven years ago when frustration encompassed me; I will have to go get the storm. This time I won't just "get" it, I will take it and run so that someday I can teach the kids to dream. To show them it's okay to be different. To think independently. That they shouldn't be afraid to try. That their hard work will pay off. That lying is wrong; you can't steal, cheat, or mislead people. That it's okay to be who you are. To be patient. To be humble and kind. That people will appreciate you. And eventually to put your foot down and seize your moment when it's your time. Folks, now is the time.
So the next time a Tornado Warning is issued think of us. We will already be there. Probably on some lonely country road in a marsh, watching the sky waiting for the next big moment in Wisconsin weather history.