Gregory Stevens was living two separate lives—until last week.
For his day job, Stevens worked as a pastor in Palo Alto, California, home to Stanford University as well as many tech workers and their families. His role included organizing the church's elderly population for volunteer work, such as a Food Not Bombs initiative.
At the same time, Stevens had developed an online community of friends and leftist ministers on Twitter, thanks to his self-described "disgruntled, beer-burping-type tweets." His posts included smash-mouthed critiques of Palo Alto and the insufficiently committed liberalism of its wealthy residents, irreverent comments about bathrooms, articles on post-colonial theory, and complaints about Beyoncé.
Stevens' account was public and associated with his full name. But it had largely failed to cross into his offline life in Palo Alto until recently, when NIMBYism and municipal squabbling exposed Stevens' online dirtbag left side. Stevens' church, First Baptist of Palo Alto, had been attempting to secure a permit to lease space to community groups, like a girls' choir and dance troupe, when a neighbor dug up several of Stevens' least-polite tweets and submitted them as evidence for a city council meeting about the permit. The included tweets showed Stevens calling Palo Alto an "elitist shit den of hate" and criticizing its residents' version of "social justice" as "a fucking joke." After community uproar over the tweets, Stevens resigned from the church, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Political manifestos aside, people have been acting and speaking differently at work and among friends at least as long as workplaces have existed—a healthy and normal form of code-switching. However, as social life and work have migrated online, it's become increasingly difficult to keep these split-personalities separate. Researchers like danah boyd have called this blurring of the personal and the public "context collapse": Conversations and posts that might have been totally normal in one context become visible to individuals from different communities—and become a problem for the poster. This sort of exposure has helped illuminate unsavory behavior that might have previously gone undetected. But it's also aided bad-faith mud-slinging, like the alt-right campaign that resulted in the firing of former-MSNBC host Sam Seder.
Pacific Standard caught up with Stevens to discuss this brave new public world of flattened contexts, his critique of Silicon Valley liberals, and the surprisingly intense loneliness of losing your online friends. "I was hoping to go viral for a cool YouTube video," Stevens said on Wednesday. "Nothing like this."
How long have you had a Twitter account, and what did you use it for?
For a while—like seven years, maybe. It was my side social media profile that no one [in my offline life] really knew about, and it was all leftist ministers and leftist political organizers. It was pretty small! No matter how angsty or quick or funny I was, my [follower] number never really grew, so I never really thought twice about it. The work I've been doing, the churches I've worked at have been really small, and my social justice groups are pretty small. So I didn't see myself as a public figure with a platform. I saw myself as a young guy with a small Twitter following who could complain, and be blunt, and a little coarse with some close friends every once in a while.
I have no idea why it didn't cross my mind: Now that [Donald] Trump's in office and his Twitter account's a mess, and everyone's exposing it, and all these other random people who do silly, stupid, racist things—their Twitter accounts get found. And I don't necessarily do racist things, but my Twitter account's still [been] found. [My tweets] weren't the the cordial, civil, Palo Alto dinner conversation that one might expect from a pastor in Palo Alto, but they were never really directed toward those people.
The church that I worked for is also [a congregation of] older people, so they don't really use or communicate with social media at all. Typically in my church work, if there's something that the people that I'm working for don't like, they come to me, and I resolve their issue, and we're all good to go. I didn't expect a neighbor—who doesn't go to the church, who doesn't have the same moral compass that we have as Christians—to come and attack me through Twitter.
I know you've done appearances on YouTube shows before. Outside of your rough-and-tumble personal Twitter for leftist ministers and friends, were you also trying to cultivate a separate Web presence for your professional life?
The more left-leaning politically I get, [having] a Web presence and being online is terrifying, because I don't want more information out there. When this article went viral, there were pictures of me that I hadn't seen before [being posted]. That YouTube video was used as a picture for one of the articles. Because I tried to take most of [my pictures] down, it was like, "Oh damn, I forgot about that one!" The more I put out there, the more people can use against me. And when [you're] doing radical politics, that's terrifying.
Cyber-security is something I need to wrap my mind around and do more research on, but I am realizing that a public profile is helpful for spreading some news. Maybe not everything I actually think, but spreading some ideas. Twitter was actually good for that because those leftist friends, and the political comrades, we all had each other's backs. And yet, as real and as deep as those relationships can be, I think it was because my community was smaller.
Now you had to delete your Twitter account. Are you feeling a void there now that you're no longer present on the Web in the same way?
On Monday morning, I woke up and deactivated my Facebook, deleted my Twitter, and then I was like, wait ... all the people I know, who support me and love me, are messaging me and tweeting at me and responding to me, and now they can't! That was a weird feeling. That was a feeling of loneliness. It was funny to feel that sense of loneliness because it was just an Internet community that I was missing.
But when the Guardian article came out, and a couple of other pieces, that really shined light on the fact that I was trying to make a critique of society, on the economic and social system, [that] it was primarily a justice claim, not just coarse language or stupid poop jokes. I got this fire in my belly and was like: "The hell with that! I want to get back on Twitter, and I want to get back on Facebook!"
There was this flood of support, of people saying: "You're exactly right. Hone your language, sharpen your tongue, but you got it, and you're going places with that." I was in this depressed hole of [thinking], "Oh I'm not a moral, ethical pastor because I used curse words, and I don't have a community, and if I go online, they're gonna find more stuff and use it against me." But I was like: "The hell with that. They're not going to use this against me. I want to continue to have a Web presence, and continue to connect with people that I'm meeting through this absurd, but viral, news story."
Have you created this 2.0 Web presence yet?
I haven't created it yet. This morning I woke up and I re-created [my Twitter account] @hellogregory. [I'm] also just trying to figure out what a way forward is, so I can use this to my advantage, rather than against me. Because there do seem to be a lot of people who have a similar critique of Palo Alto, but just maybe weren't willing to say it.
Did you ever consider getting an "alt" Twitter account, or at least one that was locked to the public, so people from your church wouldn't be privy to you posting about Beyoncé or making jokes about old people?
I used to love the idea of liberalism, and making it in this society, and that dominant culture was good, and all we needed was a couple of reforms, and if my Twitter account blew up, then one day I would be in a nice bow tie on MSNBC critiquing culture, because I had this built-up Web presence or whatever. But then I went to grad school, and everything changed. I started reading books and engaging with social movements. And I didn't necessarily need or want that kind of bubbly presence.
But now, yes, I'm absolutely excited to continue to share the most radical sorts of ideas out there. But I'm definitely going to do it under a different name [than my own]. And that's something that I'm learning as a new person to that world. I came to radical politics intellectually, and less through lived experience. I'm gay, but I'm also a middle-class white guy. And so I didn't experience marginalization and oppression so that I would have picked up on this earlier.
As you've said, you were communicating with a specific Twitter community when you tweeted things like calling Palo Alto "an elitist shit den of hate," and "disgusting." Underneath the eye-catching language, there's a substantive critique baked in there. Can you spell it out for me?
When I first moved here from Los Angeles, I had this year of research: get to know the community, get to know Palo Alto. So I joined a couple of activist community boards. Climate change is a big issue in Palo Alto, so I joined the one popular, left-leaning climate justice group. But everyone there is talking about how their church is hosting a Tesla showing; you can try out and drive these $100,000 cars so you can participate in "saving the world." There's no questioning the idea that we can't just buy our way out of the problem, and that more consumption on a finite planet isn't going to take us anywhere. It's just going to make it all worse.
We have bike paths here, and we would have hour-long conversations about how wonderful they are, and I would raise my hand and say: "Right, but our friends of color can't use them, because they can't even come close to affording to live here. How is that in any way 'justice'?" It seems that we would need to work on economic inequality, before we can ever think that we can be green, because otherwise it's just the rich people who get to be green. My critique developed from the ground-level activism that we were doing here.
The frustrations really start[ed] to well up. I would have experiences like this daily in Palo Alto, so, after three years of this, "shit den of hate" is kind of the only words I've got.