Google has once again expanded its services. But this time, the Internet giant has moved into grimmer territory: death.
With yesterday's launch of Inactivity Account Manager, Google is inviting users to create a digital will of sorts. Which is to say, you can now proactively decide what will become of the Gmail account and all related Google channels that you inhabit once you are gone.
The company published an explanation of this new tool on its Google Public Policy blog, which typically covers issues concerning politics, policy and government.
Bearing the byline "Andreas Tuerck, product manager," the post explains that the Inactivity Account Manager "makes it easy to tell Google what you want done with your digital assets when you die or can no longer use your account."
Included in the feature is the option to delete your e-mail account after various time increments and allowing certain contacts to receive content from any one of Google's services. Essentially, Google wants to take care of your "digital afterlife." You can leave behind a photo album or video for friends and family, allow certain people to have access to your e-mail – or deny access entirely. The most important setting entails selecting a "time out" period that will consequently render your account inactive.
The post also clarifies that a message will be sent to your cellphone and a secondary e-mail address before any of the plans are activated.
The service functions much the same as a traditional will – except, of course, you are arranging the legacy of your virtual self.
When people died pre-Internet, the content they left behind wasn't nearly as public – assuming they weren't well-known figures with paintings in museums and best-selling books bearing their name. There might be written correspondence, birthday cards and photographs, but these are more intimate in nature.
As Rebecca Greenfield of The Atlantic Wire notes, "The big breakthrough here is that Google lets you plan ahead. Twitter and Facebook both have policies for the accounts of users who die, but they're retroactive."
With a bit of self-deprecating relief, the post acknowledges that the name isn't its strong point – especially for a company called Google. No doubt considerable thought was given to alternatives. And then they must have concluded that an uninspired technical name was preferable to one that made light of a serious and sensitive matter.
Comments below the feature have been mostly positive, praising the idea and thanking Google for taking the initiative to launch such a service.
As to be expected, there were also a few cheeky remarks. "Can you let me post from the grave as well?" wrote one commenter.
But there is something metaphysical in contemplating our death in the context of eternal life online. Maybe we call that meta-metaphysical.