The human microphone

The Occupy Wall Street movement adopted “the human microphone” in response to its lack of a permit for the use of amplified sound on public property in New York City. The human microphone embodies the pluralistic nature of the movement itself and serves to enhance its message, writes Casey Selwyn.

The case

The Occupy Wall Street movement began in the financial district in New York City on 17 September 2011 and spread to more than 1,500 cities globally. Occupy Wall Street deemed itself a “horizontal” movement representing the 99% of society in opposition to the top-earning 1%. Instead of resorting to traditional protest techniques and using powerful orators to rouse crowds, Occupy Wall Street had to create a different model for its movement. This is because New York City requires a permit for the use of “amplified sound on public property”, something this movement lacked.

As a response to this ban, Occupy Wall Street adopted a method dubbed “the human microphone” as a means of amplifying voices and speeches. Using this method, a speaker begins his or her speech by saying, “mic check”, and when the surrounding crowd repeats this back, the speaker delivers the speech several words at a time and the crowd repeats these words in unison. This continues until the speech is complete. In order to make decisions, the crowd uses different hand gestures to express approval or dissent. Subsequently, groups attempted to popularise techniques such as “people’s Skype’” or the hack entitled the “inhuman microphone”, which use cell phones and smartphone apps to broadcast speakers’ words amongst crowds and potentially throughout cities.

Author opinion

This type of expression is a laudable and creative effort by the protesters to deliver public messages and galvanise support. These protestors are freely expressing themselves and are well within their rights as citizens. Further, as a technique the human microphone embodies the pluralistic nature of the movement itself and serves to enhance its message. Some question whether the new “inhuman microphone” undermines the Occupy movement, as it introduces corporate technology into the grassroots movement. Yet the method is simply utilising available technology to creatively further political protest. Overall, the use of the human (and inhuman) microphone supports the pursuit of open, diverse media as it delivers a message that people can respond to and creates a political process in which people can directly participate.

- Casey Selwyn

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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