Thousands have followed the impulse to be seen online through video based social networks – expressing their feelings, showing off their talents, and filming every aspect of their lives (including goofs and gaffs). Fewer, however, have been able to establish themselves as an online presence with a popular video channel on Youtube.
Christian Ortega published the first episode of his regular web series “La Cabeza de Christian” (“Christian's Head”) back in the summer of 2009. Through LCC [es], as it is known for short, Christian generally speaks his mind about Puerto Rican politics, headline news, and his life on the island for seven to nine minutes at a time each week. It's Puerto Rican life filtered through the mind of an energetic and media-savvy twenty-one year old. To this date, his Youtube video channel has amassed over 1.3 million views – and counting.
We asked Christian a few questions about his success online, Puerto Rico's blogosphere, and the student strike at the University of Puerto Rico, among other topics.
Global Voices (GV): What was your first video camera and what did you record with it?
Christian Ortega (CO): I've only had one video camera – the same one I currently use, a Sony HDR-SR12. The first footage I recorded with it took place around my home. I recorded birds singing in the morning and my dog playing around. I then started acquiring the necessary editing skills using software like Sony Vegas and Adobe After Effects. I'd watch tutorials online through Youtube – so you could say I make videos thanks to the site. Without having a user account yet from which to upload my own content, I was already being influenced by Youtube.
GV: How did the idea for your project, “La Cabeza de Christian”, come about?
CO: Three years ago I did not pay attention to any type of news. It was then that I first listened to @JayFonsecaPR [Jay Fonseca; a local young radio and TV personality that comments on news] and developed an interest for what was happening in my country and the rest of the world. Without having listened to 180 grados [es] (“180 degrees”, Fonseca's program) every Monday to Friday from 5pm to 7pm, La Cabeza de Christian would not exist today.
The station I'd tune in for news, RED96FM, was closed down and replaced with Ritmo 96, its programming dedicated to merengue and bachata music. A news program that appealed to the youth was taken off the air by those beloved “market forces.” All the indignation I'd built up in my head needed a place for release. But it wasn't all indignation – I wanted to have a space where I could have some fun as well.
After a couple of months of studying tutorials in Youtube, it was inevitable that I'd start watching videos by Shane Dawson, Smosh, Nigahiga, Philip DeFranco, among others – all of them american vloggers with different focuses and recording methods. The idea of having my say through Youtube came from watching all of these programs and the delivery comes from the way I naturally act, what I read and who I am.
GV: Did you think your videos would find an audience like the one you have today?
CO: I never imagined it. I always thought that they would be enjoyed only by family and friends. It has been a very emotional experience, full of human warmth.
GV: What topics interest you the most?
CO: I'm passionate about history, philosophy, politics, and colonialism – this last one interests me a lot, how it has impacted the world, as of course, how to eradicate it. Social sciences, technology, and in six months I'll have more topics to add if I am asked the same question again. I'm very nosey and prone to have several interests at the same time.
GV: The University of Puerto Rico (UPR) is going through a critical time in its history. Through “La Cabeza de Christian” your viewers have been able to follow your participation in the student strike. What is most surprising about the on-going conflict afflicting the institution?
CO: What's most surprising to me is the wave of repression coming from the state, who has decided to invade all of the university's campuses that show any type of commitment to fighting against the imposition of an $800 fee for this semester and $400 for all subsequent semesters through use of police force.
GV: What do you think is (or should be) the role of Puerto Rico's blogosphere? Is it a substitute for traditional media?
CO: I think the principal role of our blogosphere should be tackling topics in a more in-depth manner so that people that consume the information can receive other points of view about the same problem that was mentioned in traditional media. It also serves as a dissenting voice amidst an oppressive reality against the individual and against a collective that wishes to maintain every citizen obedient and subservient.
To be honest, our blogosphere does not yet have the resources necessary in order to substitute traditional media but it does have the talent in order to serve as an example to them. But since we don't have the considerable resources needed to establish our own information networks, at least personally, I depend on traditional media in order to inform and form my opinions, that I'll then be able to transmit through alternative media.
GV: Many people in the blogosphere would love to live off their online projects, but we don't hear a lot of stories about local blogs successfully monetizing their blogs. Can bloggers live off their blogs?
CO: My own efforts have been pretty effective. I first invested money in a hundred pin-back buttons to sell and little by little I was able to buy two machines so I can make them myself – not only for my vlog but now I offer the service to others with similar projects.
My products have traveled to parts of Latin America, the United States, and Spain. And although the fact gives me great pleasure, it has not produced sufficient money to live off the vlog. I think that for that to happen we need more companies assigning funds for online marketing efforts. But that method doesn't make me entirely comfortable, since I think that it would make me have to respond to other interests other than my program.
GV: What is the biggest challenge facing Puerto Rico's youth?
CO: Puerto Rico's youth in general should be prouder of their roots and more conscious of the historical events that have taken place on our island. This historical conscience and defense of our roots should lead Puerto Rico's youth to visualize themselves inside a colony of the United States that should be repudiated and protested against.
Besides fomenting this nationalism of the oppressed, I believe we must also look to an economic nationalism, in order to reinforce our local economy. If we are going to be consumers, at least we should consume what we produce most of the time. Puerto Rico's youth has to assume the responsibility imposed by our status as a colony and to stop living in a vacuum free of all worry.
GV: Are you “preaching to the converted” or do you reach a broader audience with “La Cabeza de Christian”?
CO: I spend a great part of my day reading messages and compiling information in my mind about the people who watch LCC and I can say I am not preaching to the converted. I've spoken to people who don't share my views and say they enjoy the videos, as well as there are people who share ideas with me but hate the way I execute them.
The capacity to reach a young audience – 13, 14, 15-year olds – allows me to speak to a depoliticized group that has yet to assume postures; and perhaps by mentioning historical events or important figures in Puerto Rico's history I can help foment different views to those they would have without knowing of said facts.
I also recommend from time to time books and places I've visited – I record these experiences and share them through my vlog. Its gratifying to know that someone is reading a book I recommended through social networks.
GV: Is there any topic you are not willing to speak about in front of a camera and share with your followers?
CO: The relationship I have with my viewers has reached such an extreme – and this might sound absurd – that I feel I must share every topic that affects my personal life. A few months ago my dog passed away and I wanted to say it on Youtube so that people would understand my mental state in those weeks. I was criticized a lot but I know those people don't know the relationship you can establish with others through social networking.
An extended version of this interview first appeared in PuertoRicoIndie.com in Spanish.