John Dombrowski '23 with 1.1 million TikTok followers, sits on the stairs of Goldwin Smith Hall.

Nandita Mohan / Sun Staff Photographer

John Dombrowski '23 with 1.1 million TikTok followers, sits on the stairs of Goldwin Smith Hall.

February 18, 2020

Riding the Viral Tiktok Wave, First-Year Marine Biology Student Finds Internet Fame

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He can’t “Renegade”, but with 1.1 million followers and counting, one Cornell first-year is starting to feel the fame — TikTok fame that is. John Dombrowski ’23 has amassed a cult following on the popular app and it shows no signs of slowing down.

With TikTok’s presence growing rapidly worldwide, Dombrowski is riding the platform’s popularity wave into campus — if not wider — stardom.

From his first video posted in September 2019, Dombrowski hit it off, garnering a total 1.2 million views. A scroll through his page currently reveals over 300 videos, with many having equally impressive view counts. His videos — most shot in his Court-Kay-Bauer Hall dorm room — are takes on life, features on marine biology or looks into life as a Cornell student.

That first video, a jab at his North Atlanta suburb’s public high school, transformed into a following.

@jc6470

#publicschool #foryou #foryouppage #publicschoolcheck #funny #school #story

♬ original sound – jc6470

“Definitely [talking about] college was how I grew my channel,” Dombrowski said. The topics of his TikToks have included the college the first-year applied to and how he chose his major — marine biology — at Cornell.

Dombrowski was able to grow a following of 500,000 TikTok followers from around late September to December 2019. In an effort to diversify his content, he looked to his roots.

“I can’t dance, I’m not hot, I can’t do the thirst traps or whatever,” he said.

What he did know about, and enjoy, was marine biology, a passion he has had since age three.

Growing up in Roswell, Georgia, Dombrowski always did his own thing, which allowed him to independently develop his unique passion for marine biology.

In high school, Dombrowski shared how he “did everything” from clubs to sports. But it wasn’t always easy: “People sucked … I was the only gay kid in my high school for the large majority of it,” he said.

The TikTok star shared how being one of the only gay students provided him a foundation for personal growth and self-awareness.

With a newfound direction at Cornell, Dombrowski’s channel soared. His most viewed video to date explores “Horrible ways to die in the ocean,” which currently has 7.8 million views.

@jc6470

So close to 900k y’all 😭❤️ #fyp #foryoupage #foryou #scary #ocean #wtf #weird #facts #edutok #education #nature #science #cool #school

♬ original sound – jc6470

His videos now range from “Terrifying ocean facts” to “Overpriced makeup that sucksssss.” In late January and February, several of these videos garnered over one or two million views; the first-year’s marine biology fact videos often hit over six million views.

On the follower climb, Dombrowski explained how it periodically leaps: “Your amount of followers will like jump if you have a viral video.” As of Tuesday, he boasts 1.1 million followers — and, along with it, campus recognizability.

Around campus, Dombrowski is often recognized, he said. As he was speaking to The Sun in Temple of Zeus, two groups of people recognized him as “TikTok famous.”

While Dombrowski enjoys his newfound TikTok fame, it has come at a cost. The social media star said that parties are a no-go due to his recognizability and the volume of photos and videos that come with them: “I don’t want like that kind of stuff coming out.”

“People are really mean to me about it,” he said. “It’s kinda ruined my dating life.”

His newfound campus presence has also resulted in changes to his friend dynamics. He found his real friends before the fame hit, and now some students have tried to ride along his fame. Some students ask to be in Dombrowski’s videos, which he describes as, “trying to use me.”

Despite the downfalls, he would do it all again. Dombrowski uses the impact of his platform to enact positive change in support of the ocean. In one video, he advocates for 4ocean, a company that removes trash from the ocean by selling recycled bracelets.

Although he’s riding high now, Dombrowski says he has no idea how long the fame will last. Until then, he’s going to continue to diversify his content — as long as that means no dancing.