Wu-Hoo! Nutty Professor Is Voice of a Generation

Last week, a group of five women law students from Columbia University took seats on a small makeshift stage, dressed in identical skimpy black hot pants and white tank tops, mimicking law students in classes taught by their 34-year-old professor, Tim Wu. A voice-over pretended to broadcast the contents of the female students’ wandering minds.

“Is Tim asking me whether I want to have his baby?” the voiceover intones. “I only took this class so I could stare at him.” Finally, “Ain’t no other man but Wu.”

As a band struck up, the women stood in a girl-group formation, spun around and showed their posteriors to the crowd, branded with lettering that read “I ♥ Wu.”

The video of the performance, which was part of the biannual “Columbia Law Revue,” quickly made its way to the Internet video-sharing Web site YouTube.

In 2006, Mr. Wu co-wrote the book Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World.

According to the book’s editor, Who Controls the Internet?, which came out this past March, has sold between 8,000 and 10,000 copies. The number of people who have watched the video on YouTube within a week of the performance was 251.

Absurdly, the way things are going in publishing, in law and on the Internet, it’s hard to know which number is the better indicator of Mr. Wu’s prospects as a legal superstar.

“There’s a fine line between being someone who has a brand and does comment on public things, and being someone who wantonly diffuses their academic perch to comment on all sorts of random things they know nothing about,” Mr. Wu said innocently. “I was a little afraid of getting into that latter category.”

Mr. Wu is often heard on NPR and read on Slate. He’s at work on an article for The New York Times Magazine and is represented by literary agent Chris Calhoun, whose clients include Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and poet laureate Billy Collins.

For a recent dinner interview, Mr. Wu wore a striped zippered sweater and sneaker-shoes, and carried a boxy red Euro-looking shoulder bag. He could be a computer programmer or a grad student. Half-Taiwanese, he appears to be cultivating a goatee. He drives a 1974 CB Honda motorcycle. He’s a recurring fixture at Burning Man, the neo-hippie arts festival set annually in the Nevada desert, where he sometimes dons a cowboy costume. In the small hours of the day, he has been known to stumble out of the East Village sake bar Decibel.

Mr. Wu’s latest article for Slate was “A Dumpling Manifesto,” and he was eager to demonstrate his expertise to a reporter at Chinatown Brasserie, the kind of restaurant where the dim lighting and dance-music remixes make the food start to seem a little beside the point.

On the soup dumplings: “This is a very important dish and very hard to make.”

On the shrimp-and-chive dumplings: “This is a dumpling that’s become popular over the past 10 years.”

On the shrimp dumplings: “This is a triumph of Cantonese ingenuity, this dumpling.”

“Journalists will listen to you, because of your affiliation, on completely random topics,” Mr. Wu said. “And so there’s sort of a duty of self-control, of not talking about stuff you don’t know anything about. Of course, it’s tempting.”

Mr. Wu’s primary editor at Slate, Dahlia Lithwick, is a big fan of Mr. Wu’s.

“He’s done what a lot of legal academics would dream about doing,” she said.

She said that seven or eight years ago, she had trouble getting law professors to write for her.

“They would be like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I’m really busy. What could I possibly say in 1,200 words?’”

These days, she said, professors are clamoring to do it.

“There’s no question that what you want to do is be the guy who the media says, ‘I need a piece on YouTube. Who’s the guy—what’s his name? Tim.’ That’s true for Rick Hasen with election law. Dershowitz is absolutely it for criminal defense.”

Law schools have always had professors who love the limelight, but Mr. Wu is beginning especially early in his career.

“I don’t think we have a model of somebody’s who’s really done it successfully yet,” said Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School, who writes a column for Wired magazine and is a mentor of Mr. Wu’s.

“It’s a very dangerous strategy for an academic, and its dangerous because it’s a very jealous and small-minded business, the business of being an academic,” Mr. Lessig said.

The dean of Columbia Law School, David Schizer, called Mr. Wu “a superstar.”

But becoming a superstar outside the rarefied world of “top academics” is a longer labor—and increasingly important for law professors who want to make themselves a commodity in an intensely competitive market. Whether the academy is ready for a generation of Mr. Wus remains to be seen.

“I obviously have a view that it’s very important to popularize some issues,” said Mr. Lessig of his own work, “because there are really critically important issues at stake right now, and it really takes trying to convey something that the academy understands clearly to the policymakers so that the policymaker can do the right thing. So what Tim’s doing is very important from a policy perspective—but he’s not a chaired, tenured professor that can really afford it in the way that maybe I can afford it.”

“If you want to get intellectual about it, it’s all about audience,” said Mr. Wu (who’s got the tenure, but not the chair). “So traditionally, law professors wrote for other professors and sometimes wrote for judges and for lawyers. In some fields, that’s not the relevant audience. If you’re writing in copyright, creative industries are a relevant audience, and so you’ve got to reach them however you can. And if you write about technology, the industry is the relevant audience—the industry, and the pundits in the industry, those guys. There’s no way they’re ever going to read a law-review article, so you need to come to them.”

In the academy, he is known for being one of the first advocates of “network neutrality,” which is the notion that broadband providers shouldn’t discriminate against any Internet destinations. He’s certainly well represented in the professional journals, with 11 law-review articles under his belt. (Of course, there’s another relevant statistic to make that even more impressive: In the past year, he was ranked the 13th-most-downloaded law professor.)

But Mr. Wu is increasingly prominent outside the academy, too. In its December issue, Scientific American names him as one of this year’s 50 top scientific achievers for articulating this idea.

There have been other awards, as well.

“He won the lemon-meringue-pie-eating contest,” his former boss, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, told The Observer. “He taught me how to order special delicatessen sandwiches by Internet, and he was indefatigable—a valuable man in chambers.”

“I used to call him the Genius Wu,” said Judge Richard Posner. “That was my nickname for him. He’s very, very, very smart.”

When Mr. Wu arrived in New York in January, he sat a friend down and explained his belief that law professors only get what he called “one extracurricular.”

“I wasn’t really sure which one I would get to. I started looking at the careers of successful academics,” he said.

There were the practitioners: Harvard’s Laurence Tribe and Stanford’s Kathleen Sullivan. The writers: New Republic legal-affairs editor and George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen, and New York Times Magazine contributing writer and N.Y.U. law professor Noah Feldman. The policy advisor: Berkeley Law School dean Christopher Edley Jr., a veteran of the Carter and Clinton administrations.

He picked writing, for magazines, newspapers and the Internet, for now.

There’s his self-publishing. On his Web site, TimWu.org, Mr. Wu posts snapshots from his trips to places like Sierra Leone and Nepal, and hosts a blog-like section entitled “What’s New with Wu.” The barebones site can be viewed in Chinese, which he speaks “badly,” along with Japanese, French and German.

On Slate, he’s written articles about the dangers of Supreme Court justices making political hires; the ability of U.S. marijuana policy to withstand W.T.O. law; the “Kung Pao Chickenization” of China’s film industry; the Bush administration’s subpoena of Google’s records; and the legal protections available to YouTube.

The son of two scientists, Mr. Wu studied biochemistry at McGill in Montreal, Canada. But he was clumsy in the lab. His friend had some law-school applications lying around, and Mr. Wu sent them in, literally penciling in the one to Harvard.

Though he had good grades in law school, he didn’t make the Harvard Law Review, a fact he attributes to his lack of obsessive-compulsiveness. Still, Mr. Wu had stood out in a class about the law of cyberspace, attracting attention from Professor Lessig.

“He was never quite convinced that you should be teaching him as opposed to him teaching you,” Mr. Lessig said approvingly.

Mr. Wu—a self-described “radical moderate, an angry moderate”—scored that prestigious clerkship with the libertarian Judge Posner on a recommendation from Mr. Lessig. It’s an experience that he likened to training with a “kung fu master.”

When Mr. Wu’s application for a Supreme Court clerkship was being reviewed, Mr. Lessig recalled being asked by Justice Breyer, “Both you and Dick Posner seem to think he’s really outstanding, but he’s not on the Harvard Law Review.”

He got the job anyway. As hard as it is to imagine, this sentiment from the justice seems to encapsulate the feelings of other academics about Mr. Wu, some of whom can’t help but envy the way things seem to have fallen into place so easily for him.

“There’s sort of a traditional path in law school,” he said. “… You can imagine a house that everyone’s trying to get into, which is something like a Supreme Court clerkship. I always thought there was a massive line headed at the front door, but if you just took a little side route …. It seemed to me everyone was trying to beat down the same door. You could do a little bit of different thinking, and jump in through an open window.”

When his clerkship ended, Mr. Wu didn’t return directly to academia; nor, as many others do post-clerkship, did he put in the de rigueur two or three years at a firm or on a research fellowship. Instead, he went to Silicon Valley to work in marketing for Riverstone Networks, a telecommunications company.

He had published only two articles when he grew tired of the 9-to-5 grind and put himself on the market; he was hired by the University of Virginia. They “took pity on me,” he said.

Three years later, some of the country’s other top schools were calling. Mr. Wu visited at Columbia, the University of Chicago and Stanford, but Mr. Schizer was the first out of the gate with a tenure offer.

Eight months, one cross-country drive and a Lasik surgery appointment later, Mr. Wu had arrived in New York, and with a job for life.

In a phone conversation, the law-student skit came up, and he talked about it and the “I ♥ Wu” shorts, sheepishly.

“I have to get a pair of those,” he said.