We lead rich virtual lives on social networking sites like Google+, Facebook, and Twitter. So what happens when real life catches up, and our flesh-and-blood bodies succumb to mortality? For our virtual selves, at least, some concrete answers are available--ways to settle our digital affairs after death, while minimizing hassle and heartache for loved ones.
Google sets the standard by building a dead man's switch (one with a gentler name) into your Google account features. Facebook and Twitter also have processes in place for handling accounts of the recently deceased, though they're somewhat more cumbersome. A few good Web services can help for all other online cases, passing along login information based on triggers you can set yourself.
Google's dead man switch
Google's new Inactive Account Manager system is simple to understand and set up. Accessible from your Google account settings page, it helps you set up a time-out period for your account--the length of time you can go without logging in before Google assumes that you're never coming back. The default is three months, but you can dial it up in increments of 90 days until it tops out at a year and a half. I recommend setting it to at least six months, though you could vary this period based on how often you log in.
A fail-safe is built into the service: One month before the timeout period, Google will send you an e-mail reminder (and an optional SMS message, if you give them a phone number) to make sure you're not coming back. Once your account is inactive long enough to trigger the Inactive Account Manager, Google will send a message to up to ten people notifying them that your account is now inactive.
You'll need to provide a working phone number for every contact. Google will send each of them a unique verification code so they can download any data you'd like them to have.
You can choose which pieces of your Google data to share with each person. For example, you can arrange for close friends to get links to download Picasa photo albums, while you entrust a family member to have access to your mail, Google Voice messages, and everything else. They'll have a three-month window for doing so--after that, they'll be locked out for good.
Finally, you can configure your Google account to eradicate every trace of itself from the Google servers. That includes all of your public data, from YouTube videos to blog posts and the like.
Twitter and Facebook involve more hassle
Both Twitter and Facebook have systems in place to help you close out your accounts after you die, but neither is as thorough, nor as intuitive, as Google's new tool. You'll have to do a little legwork and assign someone to settle matters on your behalf.
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