TL: The Think Lafayette team became familiar with Ben Cotton through Twitter, when Ben became a beacon for local tweeps who were looking for information about inclement weather. To date, Ben has tweeted us through hail, thunder and lightning, a handful of tornado watches, and several nerve-wracking snowstorms. Ben, you’ve developed quite a local following online. How did this marriage of social media and meteorology begin?
Ben: It started because it’s me, I suppose. I completed my meteorology degree before Twitter was a thing, but I’ve always enjoyed sharing my interpretation of weather events. When Twitter came along, it seemed like a natural place to spit out quick thoughts on developing events. It’s my experience that writing something to share forces me to think more critically about my forecast, so it benefits everyone. Over time, people have found me and they seem to appreciate my updates. I should say, though, that I’m not paid to do this, and if an event goes on while I’m not available, I won’t be posting updates. Please do not use my tweets as your only source of weather information.
I understand that you’ve done some storm chasing throughout the Midwest. Describe some of the most interesting things you’ve seen on an expedition. Also, what kind of crazy person do you have to be to chase
tornadoes as a hobby?
TV and movies always give people a skewed view of storm chasing. It’s actually a really great way to burn money while you let your legs go numb. I’m not what you’d call “good” at chasing, so a lot of the enjoyment comes from the journey. I’ve had the chance to explore a lot of central Illinois, and there are a lot of fun little in-jokes that make absolutely no sense if you weren’t there.
It actually helps if you’re not crazy. If you’re doing it right, chasing is no less safe than just driving around. It’s very important to stay in a safe position, close enough to the storm to see the excitement, but far enough away to not become the excitement. It can be difficult to do this in some of those early season events where the storms move at 45-60 mph.
Switching gears, you use your online presence for weather-unrelated good deeds as well. Tell us about the Mario Marathon.
Mario Marathon is actually how I started using my Twitter account. My friend Brian started Mario Marathon in 2008 as a way to raise funds for Child’s Play Charity. In the past four years, over a quarter million has been raised from Mario Marathon donors. 100% of the donations go straight to Child’s Play which provides books, toys, and video games to kids in children’s hospitals around the world, including Riley. Mario Marathon has a global audience and is enjoyed by both gamers and non-gamers alike.
What I personally do [during the marathon] is coordinate audience interaction. I’m known primarily for reading and responding to tweets from viewers, but I also interact in the chat room. There are many questions from viewers and someone has to answer them. We’ve also found that giving shouts out to viewers helps with engagement. When we talk to them as individuals on the video feed, they feel more involved, and they’re more likely to stick around and watch. Every so often, I get to interview celebrities like Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day.
[We] play video games. A list of games is set ahead of time and the players play through them for days on end. The length of the marathon depends on how long it takes to beat each level and how many levels are unlocked by viewer donations. Between games, or when certain milestones are reached, the cast take a few moments to do dances or other silly distractions. By the end of the marathon, people tend to be pretty loopy.