Scientists Are the Surprise Stars of Facebook Live

New media is looking more and more like old media.

Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

Earlier this month, the viziers and viscounts who run Facebook issued a proclamation. The algorithms that drive the platform’s News Feed—the central stream on its website and mobile apps—would now favor its newest product: live streaming video.

“We are making a small update to News Feed so that Facebook Live videos are more likely to appear higher in News Feed when those videos are actually live, compared to after they are no longer live,” said Vibhi Kant and Jie Xu, two Facebook engineers, in a blog post. “People spend more than [three times] more time watching a Facebook Live video on average compared to a video that’s no longer live.”

“This is because Facebook Live videos are more interesting in the moment than after the fact,” they added.

Whom the News Feed chooses to highlight, and why, can have enormous consequences that can ripple across the media world. When Facebook started to accent “high-quality content” in August 2013, it sent a deluge of traffic to certain brand-name news sites. The journalism industry is still dealing with the after-effects. Though other tech companies have experimented with live streaming (Twitter’s Periscope being the most notable example), Facebook Live and News Feed’s stream of attached free attention for it has the potential to make new media stars. So what’s being born there?

Right now, live streaming seems to break down into three categories. At the top, with the highest view counts, are celebrities and other “media personalities” who have had access to the feature since last summer. At the bottom are people mostly streaming to their friends: teens putting on make-up, hanging out at a sleepover, or playing a piece of music for their family.

Between them, some leaders think, is an emerging middle category. Two weeks ago, the astronaut and physiologist Scott Parazynski got tens of thousands of concurrent viewers for an hour-long Q&A on how space travel affects the human body. More than 225,000 people have now seen the low-quality video in which Parazynski handles why people get taller in space and parries queries about UFOs. It’s a kind of live-video version of Reddit’s long-running Ask Me Anything feature.

Other streamers have tried similar science-minded approaches to moderate success. Meteorologists have also gone storm-chasing while live-streaming and picked up thousands of viewers. And TV networks like the Discovery Channel and Science Channel have put their own experts on, to answer user queries about, say, handling venomous snakes. Indeed, it’s these well-liked, non-partisan cable channels who seem most likely to succeed in porting their content to the stream.

Facebook seems intrigued and excited by this emerging middle category. To the company, it might even seem like these are an oasis of substance amid so many Los-Angeles-rooftop celebrity streams. I find it an enjoyable irony—though perhaps not an unexpected one—that after so much optimization, the web’s content lords would discover the most engaging type of content is, basically, television. No wonder the company might buy rights to live-stream Thursday night NFL games. As Atlantic contributing editor Ian Bogost puts it: “Television is the best. You just sit there and it happens at you.”

But it makes sense. Television, and especially cable television, has long thrived on science and history-themed programming. And as the Internet becomes more like TV—and as Facebook video ads take a larger and larger share of the old TV ad market—it’s not that much of a surprise that old cable-friendly programming will succeed in these slightly altered old forms. There’s only one difference: Where old science media stars had to succeed only by smiling, talking to the camera, and holding their venomous snake aloft; the new ones will have to be adept at smiling, talking, lofting the snake, and squinting at the screen, to discern how so many semi-anonymous Internet viewers are talking back.