Terms That Serve Us

illustration by Wandy Cheng, https://www.wandycheng.com/links

illustrations by Wandy Cheng

Through virtual care lab’s public research residency with The Bentway in May 2021, we developed a collectively-generated “terms of service” through an experimental, collective research process – a free, public series of discussions, gatherings, and online portals, open to anyone to participate. We invited reflections from previous collaborators and participants of the many creative gatherings and projects we have organized in virtual space over the past year. Ultimately, we generated a set of terms that have challenged us, as we build a practice on a basic respect for humanity within a corporatized digital landscape, and offer our reflections on how we have engaged with them in our work.

“Terms of service” refers to the legal agreements governing a user’s relationship to a digital platform. They are intentionally obscure, comprising dozens or hundreds of pages of legalese, or patronizing, glossy misuses of the language of “community”. At their core, they are designed to restrict users’ agency and recede from awareness – to click through once and forget. 
In contrast, our living, collaborative “Terms That Serve Us” include common words – like community, contributor, study, gardening, accessibility, user, listening, and care – around which we invite critical reflection, and through which we define our practice as a community. We seek to be inviting and readable, and to prompt people to actively consider how they interpret and perform this set of values.

The Terms That Serve Us offer inversions, transformations, rejections, and challenges to typical “terms of service” agreements. They invite us to explore values that grow from, listen to, and move with our different lands and lineages. Our Terms are an evolving constellation of community intentions and understandings, rather than a fixed set of rules. They celebrate fluidity and face friction, and recognize expansive modes of access, rather than retreating to defensive legal structures, reflecting an essential trust in, and respect for, other beings.
We intend these Terms to be generative: try using them as prompts for reflection through your own media, practices & perspectives. These Terms also serve as provocations towards future collectively-defined terms of service, and as a resource for other organizers and spaces. We invite the co-creation of new terms and explorations – they can be rhythmic, spatial, mathematical, kinesthetic, interactive, glitchy, or something unimaginable. We recognize this work as a living, shared reflection, and we invite newcomers to reflect on them as well.

Below are a few of the Terms That Serve Us. All our living Terms are at virtualcarelab.com/terms, along with long-form research and documentation, further reflections, resources generated by this work, and an open invitation to respond.


An active practice, not a passive adjective. Our space isn’t “welcoming” or “inviting” – we invite and welcome people.
We receive ideas for gatherings from newcomers through a free, public, easy-to-read form that doesn’t ask for an “artist bio”, CV, work samples or references. We encourage people to introduce themselves in human ways based on their interests and current explorations rather than their job titles alone or elite affiliations.

We take time to acknowledge people, introduce ourselves to newcomers, and offer various ways to practice community – from movement workshops, to ongoing research groups, to collective improvisation performances, to quiet time writing together. Meaning, knowledge, and intelligence extend far beyond verbal language, and we actively invite others to respond to ideas in any medium they prefer. (Our collective research process reflects this philosophy.)

We choose to refer to our group activities as gatherings rather than “events”, in order to recognize the essential element of shared practice and mutual respect. Since we began, we have organized gatherings based on proposals received through a simple, public online form, collaborating with newcomers to co-organize expansive, generative group practices regardless of their prior “experience” in doing so.

By structuring gatherings around the equal contributions of participants rather than a binary separation between presenter and audience, we invite people to recognize and listen to each other.

Gathering often means meeting in video calls – but it doesn’t have to be simultaneous, synchronous, or include an agenda. We come together across a range of media, languages, environments, academic and artistic backgrounds, time zones, and other borders. 

Our set of practices for acknowledging, engaging with, and checking in with participants in our Discord channel, and with past contributors and collaborators outside Discord. Many of our practices can also be thought of as a trellis through which new forms twine and grow. (“Lab Hour” - our regularly scheduled, consistent practice of showing up in the voice channel for unstructured discussion and social time, has become a fertile soil that has sprouted some of our best ideas.)

This goes beyond ‘web presence’ as an indicator of monetizable identity, and beyond ‘presence on’ any given platform. Presence means avoiding measuring success in terms of audience size or scale. Presence involves showing up (or not showing up – ‘guilt free’), and remembering that each others’ presence is enough, whether constant, asynchronous, intermittent, or once in a blue moon.

an active practice of listening and presence among our community: we encourage other individuals and collectives to define this for themselves. In virtual care lab, we have incorporated practices of regularity, somatic attentiveness, listening and play that remind us of our different needs and perspectives. We invite and welcome newcomers into older traditions, and create regular ways to be with each other. Genuine love, appreciation, compassion, and gratitude for each other ripple outwards from there.

user, participant, contributor
We share many negative associations around the term “user” to describe members of a community (addiction, among others). We encourage others to choose a different term, like participant, community member, co-conspirator, or contributor. virtual care lab has used all of these words, and we do not prioritize one ‘official’ label for members of our community. Mostly, we call people by their names.

Inspired by the idea of ‘study’ as outlined by Fred Moten in The Undercommons, we look for alternatives modes of inquiry beyond what is academically standard. Our collective studies have included collective writing, discussion, grounding exercises & meditations, Qigong, laughter, dancing, listening. What forms of media, practice, listening, or imagination count as "research"? How do everyday moments constitute study, shared with each other?

In digital spaces usually accessed via seated, keyboarded, two-dimensionally-screened communication, and which overemphasize attention to visual and verbal media, we create ways to remind ourselves we are not disembodied eyeballs. Our virtual gatherings have studied dance and movement, walking and listening, breath, abstract vocal expression, and other practices exploring nonvisual, nonverbal sensations and perceptions. We celebrate caring for bodies in the digital world through guided somatic exercises; asynchronous portals that provoke sensory explorations of time and space, offering consistent, regularly scheduled meetings in our voice channel, cooking during video chats and gatherings, including breath or grounding exercises in meetings or gatherings, and discussing how our bodies relate to digital space. We look for ways to remember that awareness of one’s own embodiment often involves awareness of one’s environment and of the individual physical needs of others around us.

This is a word that has been co-opted and misused by countless organizations, corporations, and individuals as a marketing bromide, and a vaguely positive euphemism for users of a specific media platform. Our community exceeds a single platform. The essential goal of our gathering is not to amass users to generate data for profit – but to create kinship, meet and know each other as individuals, and to develop relationships across differences, timezones, and constructed borders. We practice being in community with each other across a variety of media, and through many different kinds of gatherings and projects, which are nodes in a common exploration of experimental creative practice.



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