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Kevin Cullen

Antibullying idea clicks

A couple of weeks ago, Amanda Palmer, the musician who became famous as one-half of the Dresden Dolls, logged on to her computer and did something we all do but are loath to admit: She typed her name into the search engine. She calls it ego surfing.

The first listing was a link to a blog item that bitterly criticized her. The critic called her a fake communist. Whatever that is. Intrigued, Palmer then typed in “Hate A...” but before she could type Amanda Palmer the auto-fill completed the name: Amanda Todd.

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Palmer had never heard of her, and assumed it was some sort of celebrity who would typically draw the ire of Internet trolls. But she Googled the name and found out that Amanda Todd was a 15-year-old girl from British Columbia who killed herself last fall after being relentlessly bullied.

Palmer searched some more and found a video that Todd made, using flash cards to articulate the loneliness and despair she felt. It kicked Palmer in the gut, because it reminded her of a video she had made, employing the same flash-card device. The difference is that Palmer’s video was art; Todd’s was a cry for help that went viral on YouTube after she committed suicide.

When she was growing up in Lexington, Palmer was the artistic and eccentric type — a younger version of what she is today — and she got bullied.

“But when I got home, it was over,” she said. “There was no one harassing me on Facebook, or sending me hateful text messages.”

The Internet and social media are tools that bullies use so that victims have no respite, no downtime. But like a lot of artists, Palmer thinks counterintuitively.

“The beautiful paradox of the Internet is that we are looking at the symptom and the cure at the same time,” she said.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Amanda Palmer

So she put it out there on her blog, www.amandapalmer.net/blog. Who’s been bullied?

“I want to hear your stories,” she wrote, “and more importantly: your coping mechanisms.”

She could not have imagined the response. Hundreds and hundreds. Many were from victims of bullying, but even more were from strangers offering a kind word to those who revealed their torture. A young woman named Shannon wrote about being harassed in high school by a boy named Austin. He made remarks about her weight, her haircut, her makeup. At lunch, he called her a cow. He would purposely bump into her and say it wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t so fat.

Then, one day, Shannon found out that Austin had killed himself. She went home and cried for the boy she had hated. She began to believe that Austin had bullied others because he had his own problems. She regretted that she never had a real conversation with him.

“When I would get those mean messages online, I would instantly retaliate with something equally terrible and soul-crushing,” Shannon wrote. “After Austin, I didn’t do that.”

If Palmer’s blog became something of a virtual therapy session, she knew that some of the people writing needed professional help beyond an online support group. Palmer tweeted out a suicide hotline number, and a high school girl saw it by chance. The girl sent Palmer a tweet thanking her, saying she saw the number at a moment she was contemplating suicide. The girl’s tweet to Palmer triggered tweets from others with words of encouragement, phone numbers for professional help, even songs to listen to.

This has all proved Amanda Palmer’s thesis, that a cyberspace infected by mean-spirited trolls is peopled by greater numbers of those who traffic in empathy, phone numbers, and good music.

“This to me is the only way out,” Palmer said. “You can enact policies and school the teachers and make laws but nothing will fix the problem except people talking to each other and being compassionate.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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