The Human Microphone #OccupiesWallStreet

I just searched “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) on Google News and in a quarter of a second I had 29, 300 results. That’s a lot of news coverage on one topic.

To say that mass news media coverage of this liberal American protest movement is picking up would be an understatement. If you follow the news on a daily basis, you’ve probably been exposed to coverage about the OWS protests in some form or another over the past week. For example, both the USA Today and The New York Times covered it again in today’s editions. The former featured it as their cover story and the latter mentioned it on their front page and continued the story on page 18.

USA Today 10-11-2011
The New York Times 10-11-2011

This is not a political blog and, for the context of this specific website, I don’t care about the politics behind the OWS movement. I am more interested in the act of protest itself rather than the content of the message. Protesting requires clever uses of communication for information dissemination and there are few clearer examples of effective uses of communication to spread messages than popular protest movements. Of course, social media has played an enormous role in the OWS protests, just like it has for any protest movement in the past few years. But today the focus is not on new media.

I would like to briefly point out one of the most interesting communicative factors of the OWS movement; the human microphone.

The Human Microphone 

It’s exactly what it sounds like. In many of the cities where the OWS protests have arisen the use of microphones and megaphones is prohibited without specific permits. As a result, the protesters have resorted to the human microphone technique in order to make sure everybody in the large crowds hears the speakers.

It’s a simple concept with a few steps:

1. The speaker says a few lines (usually one or two sentences).
2. The people closest to the speaker repeat those lines for others to hear.
3. To make sure that loud clapping does not complicate the repetition of the speakers’ words, the audience raises and waves their hands in the air when they would usually applaud.

As with many things in life, the best way to help you understand the human microphone is to show you. Check out the first minute of the video below in which Michael Moore speaks to protesters via the human microphone and also comments on the nature of the microphone.

To show you that this was not just a one time thing with Mr.Moore, here are more examples. The first is from a speech by environmental activist Bill McKibben and the second is from a speech by Eastern European philosopher Slavoj Žižek

This may appear silly because you cannot see the rest of the crowd; we just see the “front row”. Obviously the people who repeat what the speaker says can hear the speaker. They repeat the speaker’s words in unison so that the majority of the crowd that’s not close to the speaker can also hear what is being said. Think of it as a “human echo” effect.

The Medium is the Message

It is fascinating to realize the power of the human voice persists in this age of social media and technological media convergence. All the technology in the world would not create as powerful an effect as the human microphone does for these protesters. A recent NPR article by Richard Kim comments on this.

The overall effect can be hypnotic, comic or exhilarating—often all at once. As with every media technology, to some degree the medium is the message. It’s hard to be a downer over the human mic when your words are enthusiastically shouted back at you by hundreds of fellow occupiers, so speakers are usually pretty upbeat (or at least sound that way).

In the above comment Kim alludes to the famous “The medium is the message” quote that was originally stated by communication scholar Marshall McLuhan.

Citing McLuhan’s media theories (1962, 1964), McQuail (2010) summarizes what McLuhan thought about media in this context.

…changes in media forms and technology can change our way of gaining experience in essential ways and even our relations with others (p. 81).

Thus, the message from the protesters, or any message for that matter, is never just about the content of the message. How we receive that message plays a huge role in how we interpret it; the medium is a big part of the message!

A radio news summary is interpreted differently than a newspaper article, a television image in interpreted differently than a description of the same scene on the radio, a blog post is interpreted differently than a book chapter, and a human microphone is interpreted differently than a traditional microphone. All of these media above might be talking about the same exact topic, but the way in which we get the information affects how we perceive it.

It is for this reason that the human microphone fascinates me so much. It is a very “old school” form of communication (for thousands of years, human beings only disseminated information orally) that is being revived today because the protesters do not have permission to use modern microphones.

This restriction on microphones, however, is turning out to be a benefit rather than an inconvenience for the protesters because the medium in this case (their voices) is helping to strengthen their message of solidarity and resistance.

While there are several issues with the human microphone (such as the inability to use jokes or discuss complex issues, as pointed out by this article) and while not everybody has such a positive perception of it (check out this article), I think that it has more advantages than disadvantages and agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion the aforementioned NPR article draws.

It is, of course, ironic that New York City’s attempt to crackdown on political protest by restricting “amplified sound” unwittingly ended up contributing to the structural strength of its rowdiest protest in decades. But like in Egypt or Argentina or Belarus or other places where the authorities sought to silence speech, the people found a way to be heard.

So how about it, can I get a mic check for this one: The people have the power.

The above statement seems to support the protesters. As stated earlier, I don’t want to make any claim of support or condemnation of the content of their message.

I do want the reader to realize the importance of preserving everybody’s right to “have a voice” and the fact that it is human nature for us to want to communicate and that we will always find a way to do so, even if it means using nothing else but our own human microphones.

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