In November 2014, the prodigiously talented Phillip Hughes was on the cusp of a return to international cricket. He had previously toured with the national side in 2009/2010 but inconsistency cost him his spot. Hughes’ batting style was unorthodox but it was also clean and powerful, and despite his inconsistent performances he was considered by those ‘in-the-know’ as a mainstay for future Australian teams. By the time summer rolled around in late 2014, Hughes was once again amassing big scores against first-class opposition and was at the head of the queue to replace the injured Australian captain, Michael Clarke.
In what would have been his final state-level game before almost certain international selection, Hughes had hit 63 runs for South Australia. He was playing well, guiding his team into a comfortable position on the first day of the match. He had faced 162 balls that day and looked set to cruise to the end of play. The 163rd ball that Hughes faced was a bouncer, similar to bean-ball pitch in baseball – intended to intimidate the hitter. A batsman is given two options when facing a bouncer: get out of the way very quickly or use the ball’s extra pace and bounce to play a shot around the body. Hughes, being a world-class player, chose the latter. He may have simply misjudged his shot or the ball may have careened off the pitch at an unusual angle, it is very difficult to tell from the available footage. What can be seen clearly though is the ball (slightly heavier and harder than a baseball) thudding into the nape of Hughes’ neck at 130km/hour.
Hughes stood shakily for a few moments after the impact, leaning on his bat for support. For those few seconds, there was hope that his stupor was the result of ‘just another head-knock’, rare but certainly not unheard for batters facing elite fast-bowlers capable of delivering the ball at 90mph. For those few seconds, there was hope that he might shake it off and return to face the next ball. For those few seconds, Phillip Hughes was still a healthy, vital young man on the verge of his 26th birthday and a return to the pinnacle of Australian sport. Hughes crumpled to earth a few seconds later and those on the field with him quickly realized that their friend would not be returning to the batting crease that day. However, even as Hughes lay pallid and unconscious on the grass of the Sydney Cricket ground, there was a cautious optimism that he would be okay – after all, nobody dies playing cricket. Australians watched on anxiously and managed to cobble together a sense of fragile optimism as he laid in hospital – yes his injuries were severe but surely he would pull through? We know now that Phil Hughes’ chance of recovery was near zero – the ball that crashed into the base of his skull had crushed and ruptured his vertebral artery. Phillip Hughes died on the morning of Thursday the 27th of November, 2014, two days after the impact.
The details of the tragedy were dissected across multiple television and print mediums in the days following Hughes’ passing. There were debates over the suitability of Hughes’ protective helmet, messages of support for Sean Abbott (the young man who bowled the fatal delivery), and lionisation of the Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke for his dignified and heartfelt response to the death of his friend. There was also a respectful, and heavily veiled undertone of surprise from many commentators over just how significantly the Australian public had been affected by the event. Many suggested that the shock of losing someone young and exceedingly healthy was a very public and powerful reminder of our own mortality. Some suggested that it was Hughes’ likeable nature and ‘country-boy’ sensibilities that exacerbated the loss. Others pointed to Australia’s cultural relationship with cricket and the timing of the tragedy; being just before the holiday season as many Australians were relaxing into a long, hot summer of watching and playing sport. There is little doubt that all of these factors combined to make Phil Hughes’ death an event of national significance.
For me though, the most striking aspect of the whole affair is the unique role that social media played in shaping how Hughes was memorialised. The days following Hughes’ passing were extraordinary to witness as a sport historian, not only to see the scale of public memorialisation that took place, but also the forms it adopted. Phillip Hughes’ death, whilst undeniably tragic, provides us with a unique case study of memory-work in the digital era.
Memorialisation of Hughes took a myriad of different forms across many social media platforms. Hundreds of thousands of people took to Facebook to express their grief – Facebook is now littered with “RIP Phil Hughes” or “Phil Hughes Memorial” page, each claiming to be ‘official’. Facebook and Twitter provided mourners with a great deal of latitude with regards to how they chose to mark Hughes’ passing. Some chose to post personal reflections of his career, others left photos of Hughes, poems and even tribute videos. The fantastic thing about social media is that these posts are still viewable now. They stand as an immediate and easily accessible archive of public reactions to Hughes’ death.
As a researcher, this type of archive presents obvious opportunities to study ‘grass roots’ construction of memories. By nature, social media are interactive and this allows researchers chances to view, in real-time, the retelling and remediation of memories. Viewing social media sites as archives of public opinion is a chance to see how certain people or groups experienced a particular event and also a way to study which pieces of information about said event are most influential in shaping public discourse. There are, as always, complications to any type of historical work though. Apart from a myriad of epistemic, technical and ethical considerations, researchers must also grapple with the messiness of human interactions as they play out on social media. The interactivity that social media facilitates often results in debates between competing discourses: how one person of group experienced the death of Phil Hughes may not have necessarily aligned with the experiences of others. Despite the potential for disagreements, social media users tend to construct memories that conform to one or two dominant readings. Holly Thorpe from the University of Waikato notes that this is often due to the influence of ‘key players’ or powerful stakeholders that can steer digital mourners toward a particular version of the past.
Discussion following Hughes’ death ranged from proposals to outlaw the ‘bouncer’ delivery, to speculation about the future of Sean Abbott, and discussions about how the sport’s governing body might officially memorialise Hughes during the 2014/2015 summer of cricket. As the days passed it became clear that the dominant theme to emerge from social media memorialisation of Hughes was that of enduring potential. Indeed, a number of messages left by mourners on Facebook and Twitter focused on Hughes being ‘taken too soon’ because he had his ‘entire career ahead of him’. Many mourners used, retweeted and recycled the hashtags #63notout and #408forever, in reference to Hughes’ score when he was felled and his playing number, respectively. There was much celebration online when Hughes was posthumously named as the 12th man for the first test-match of the summer and similar adulation as the television cameras panned across the field to reveal a giant number 408 painted onto the grass of the GABBA cricket stadium. In this way, social media gave mourners not only a chance to commune with others in grief but also a way to keep Phillip Hughes ‘alive’.
Perhaps the most interesting mourning practice born on social media in the days following Hughes’ death, was the #putoutyourbats hashtag. The hashtag was first circulated on Twitter by Sydney man Paul Taylor, 8 minutes after Phillip Hughes’ death was announced by television broadcasters. Upon hearing the news, Taylor picked up his old cricket bat and started playing with it in his lounge room. He then placed the bat outside his front door as a “mark of respect” and tweeted a photo of the gesture accompanied by the hashtag #putoutyourbats. The simplicity of Paul Taylor’s memorial obviously struck a chord with social media users. Within a week there were nearly 200,000 mentions of #putoutyourbats on Twitter, often accompanied by photos from individuals, families, teams and organisations mimicking the original arrangement. The hashtag jumped across platforms too and gained significant traction on Instagram: there are 36,690 photographs on Instagram of people ‘putting out their bats’ to commemorate Hughes’ passing.
The hashtag also moved beyond its suburban origins in Australia. Google, famed for their ever-changing and often topical ‘landing page’ images, included a pictogram of a bat leaning against a wall on the day after Hughes’ death. English football giants Manchester United also participated, tweeting a picture of a bat leaning against a corner flag at Old Trafford.
As more and more people joined in the #putoutyourbats phenomenon, Phil Hughes’ online memorialisation began to take on an entirely unique dimension. In a rather delightful paradox, social media shifted the focal point of mourning away from the digital realm and into a physical setting. Makeshift shrines began to appear on the doorsteps of suburban homes, in the entrance-ways of businesses and on the playing surfaces of sporting clubs. As this began to spread, social media websites became electronic ‘places’ for mourners to commune and also conduits between thousands of physical shrines to Phillip Hughes. In this way, the #putoutyourbats hashtag can help us understanding the changing nature of how ‘place’ is related to mourning practices in the digital age.
The idea of a ‘place to mourn’ might now be seen as dynamic rather than monolithic, traversing the barrier between the physical and digital realms. Steven E. Jones discussed the idea of digital ‘place’ in his book The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. Jones describes the Internet as having ‘everted’ when it transitioned from Web1.0 to Web2.0 in the early 21st century – the world online became no longer a ‘place’ for people to visit via their computers but rather an omnipresent and indispensable reality that infiltrates nearly every aspect of everyday life. The #putoutyourbats hashtag is a potent example of how the digital realm is increasingly indistinguishable from the physical realm – even practices that are heavily laden with notions of tradition, propriety and the physical body are becoming digital acts.
The world of social media is a messy, colloquial and difficult place to do historical work. There are many epistemic, technical and ethical considerations that historians have to grapple with before embarking on any meaningful study of the sporting past on these sites. Although I haven’t been able to investigate all of these issues within this piece, I hope I’ve been able to offer some window into the potential that social media sites have as a site for studying how a digitally mediated public constructs memories online. The connection between the sporting past and social media is becoming even more important for us to consider as sports stars and sporting teams increasingly rely upon these sites to communicate with fans.
In concluding this piece, I’d also like to add that as much as I tried to anaylse Phil Hughes’ death dispassionately, it was almost impossible not to get caught up in the emotion that all Australians seemed to be feeling during those few days in late November. It was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed and may never see its like again. I put my bat out on November 27th, and it stayed there for weeks.
– Jones, Steven E. The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. New York: Routledge, 2014.
– Gary Osmond, Murray G. Phillips, ed. Sport History in the Digital Era. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
*For further reading see Holly Thorpe’s chapter in the soon to be published Sport History in the Digital Era; a must-read for anyone interested in the issues raised by this blog post.
PhD Student at the University of Queensland (Australia)