‘Tis the season for slow news, where the tech and media worlds ramp down their furious paces for a short while (probably because their money people are unreachable) and we get a chance to reflect on both what’s happened and what’s happening.

A few weeks back, I was moderating a panel at Brainstation (an amazing tech school here in Vancouver, among other places) where I asked the panelists “What will be different about social media in 2016?”

Nearly all of them replied by saying that the format of media that we create is going to get richer or, in other words, we’re going to progress from text, to photos, to gifs, to video, all the way to live-streaming realtime media. There’s no doubt that’s true, and I believe that there is also a larger shift happening that is bigger than the media that we’re creating: It’s the way that brands and people interact with each other.

The buzzword has always been: humanization. It’s become this awful pantomime of gurus chanting along as if reading from a script, but there is a kernel of truth somewhere in there.

In the early days of social media (the dark ages of the 00’s and Badger Badger), the first brands through the wall saw the human element of social media right away, but they didn’t know what to do with it. Back then, all communication was text-based or, at best, links. That meant that everything was a semi-direct conversation. Brands like Oscar de la Renta and the Phoenix Suns created digital characters to stand for their brands. OscarPRGirl and PhoenixSunsGirl were each, literally, the brands humanized.

For the most part, the public appreciated the fact that the brands that they loved were reaching out into the social space at all – it had a bit of novelty to it, and the access to someone inside the organization was something that the world had never seen before.

Fast forward a few years, past 2010, when we’re no longer debating the fad that may be social media, and instead brands are chasing the arms race that is channels and content. When you’re spending upwards of six figures on content and a social ads purchase, there’s very little chance that you want to be building the brand of your PR Girl (or Guy), so handles started to become @Oreo, @Arbys, and @LowesHomeImprovement.

Bigger, faster, and more viral did not mean more human – in fact it meant that a lot of brands lost their human touch on social media entirely, and switched back to what they had always done: media publishing. They were chasing Likes and Shares, which are awesome, but rather than creating any sort of connection with people, they had become competition for College Humour, National Geographic, and (in some cases) even Netflix.

Huge media audiences are awesome, and they have been the keys to some monster successes like GoPro and RedBull, but what about when you can no longer scale up the budgets and quality and virality of the content that you’re creating? When you realize that you’re no longer providing customer service, and instead you’re providing free entertainment that may or may not drive any brand affinity, awareness, or real-life sales?

That’s why the shift that I’m seeing for this year is in both the way that people are interacting with brands, and the way that brands are showing up for them. People have become so used to brands in our feeds that we’re not surprised by it anymore, and for many of us the content that comes from our favourite accounts, our friends, and our favourite brands all mesh together in an indistinguishable mess of stuff that parades across our screens. We’re not pulling out brand content and examining it separately from the content that surrounds it – the brand content is a part of the feed, so we judge it the same way that we judge everything else:

Brands are catching on, too. In the same way that they learned that just handing one person in the office a Twitter account and calling them *Brand*Girl wasn’t going to cut it, they’re picking up on the fact that media for media’s sake won’t work for most of them.

They’re returning to interaction – to Snapchat where they can show a few flaws and laugh at them, to Periscope where realtime, unedited behind the scenes footage only works when it’s a 2-way conversation, and back to the Pages that originally made them successful, but now they’re replying and offering value beyond a view-count.

Interaction is what makes social media different, and more valuable than literally every other form of media that has ever existed, and it’s what brands can do that media companies can’t.

The fact that we’ve stepped up the quality of our content game across the board is outstanding, and now we can match that up with being real with people again.

My prediction for 2016? I agree with everyone who’s calling out rich media as the biggest opportunity for brands, but not because it’s going to help them to get more views.

Blogged while worrying if @DJKhaled was going to make it back to shore

Agree? Disagree? Have more to add? Holler at us on Twitter @JunctionYVR (where I promise that we’ll respond like a real person)