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What Happens When You Die on the Internet?

• April 12, 2013 • 11:04 AM

(PHOTO: WEST.M/FLICKR)

Your accounts get taken care of, and a lot of people are sad.

You exist on the Internet. At least, if you’re reading this you almost definitely do. You communicate with people over email. You look at photos of your ex old friends on Facebook. You follow the news, re-post the news, and hit on supermodels after playing basketball well for 15 minutes on Twitter. You maybe don’t use Pinterest because you’re not a sociopath. And, if not, you still probably type lots words into Google to figure out how to do things away from the computer.

But if you exist, you also must die.

(I realize there are like 12 of you—along with all the people who can’t afford computers, electricity, a microwave, and etc.—who don’t use the Internet. Congratulations to the dozen of you for being immortal.)

Yesterday, Google rolled out a new feature called “Inactive Account Manager,” which seems an overly sterile way to describe a system designed to manage the accounts of dead people—first sentence of this post: “Not many of us like thinking about death—especially our own”—but I’m going to stop criticizing Google because if they canceled Gmail I would be a non-functioning member of society and would almost definitely just give up and find a family of wolves to re-raise me in the wild, but anyway.

From Google:

For example, you can choose to have your data deleted—after three, six, nine, or 12 months of inactivity. Or you can select trusted contacts to receive data from some or all of the following services: +1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice; and YouTube. Before our systems take any action, we’ll first warn you by sending a text message to your cell phone and email to the secondary address you’ve provided.

It’s a couple of years old now, but Katie Baker wrote a great piece about mourning on Facebook and how the pages of dead members become a sort of memorial for the deceased. (There’s a memorialization process for individual Facebook pages that requires a form to be filled out with a link to a news story providing proof of death.) She wrote:

They allow us to remember what he did think and say and do during his life, both for better and for worse—which I think is more meaningful and ultimately rewarding than any concrete memory, saintly or sinful. When your personal mourning period is over, you only have to “defriend” with the single click of a button to leave the wake.

So, to answer the question posed by my headline, you must make plans in advance for your more-personal and more-private details to be taken care of, but there will be a place for all of your friends and family to get together and remember you, too. Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it?

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an assistant online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Deadspin, Grantland, The Awl, New York, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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