Google Death: A Tool to Take Care of Your Gmail When You're Gone

For years people have been urged to create a social-media will for themselves. Now Google has made doing so very easy.


Casey Hugelfink/Flickr

Perhaps you, like me, have had the pleasure of finding some old family letters or calendars squirreled away in a box somewhere, and sitting there for hours, reading about the daily life of your family before you existed.

But for future generations, those quotidian texts won't exist in a physical form but in digital files -- emails, electronic calendars, even maybe some grocery or party-lists filed away in Google Drive. The question isn't so much whether we are creating these records but whether anyone in the future will have access to them, locked away behind our passwords (and perhaps our 2-step notification process too).

For years now, lawyers, scholars, and even the government have been urging us to prepare for this eventuality. Write a social-media will, they plead, some sort of spelled-out plan for how your online life should be handled post-mortem.

And while doing so is definitely a good idea, there are also some complications: If you leave your social-media information as part of a will, it becomes public information, and you might want to keep the stuff behind your password private, even after your death. Additionally, people have many passwords and change them frequently; it's a pain to keep a social-media will current.

Google has now rolled out a technological solution, a euphemistically titled "Inactive Account Manager" tool ("Control what happens to your account when you stop using Google," the company says, i.e. die). With the tool, you set an amount of time you want Google to wait before taking action (3, 6, 9 months, or a year). One month before that deadline, if Google hasn't heard from you, it will send you an alert by either email or text message. If that month closes out and you still have not re-entered your account, Google will notify your "trusted contacts" -- you can list up to 10 -- and share your data with them if you have so chosen. The email they would get would look something like this:

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Alternatively, you can set up the manager to outright delete your account without sharing it at that time. This includes all data associated with the account -- Blogger posts, uploaded YouTube videos, Picasa albums, Google Voice messages, etc. (This goes without saying, but the tool will only help with your Google accounts. If you've got, say, a Facebook account, you'll still haven't to plan for that separately.)

It's always seemed to be the case that the difficulty of planning for one's "digital afterlife" isn't so much the logistics of it but the psychological effort it requires to deal with one's own mortality in a utilitarian, businesslike way. Perhaps the greater service Google has provided here isn't so much the functionality of the tool -- that it will execute your plans without you once you're gone -- but that they've made making those plans simple, requiring few decisions on your part. So now you can fill out that quick form, and redirect your mortal anxiety away from your email account, and back toward your mortality itself. Cheers.