Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

What are cookies?

Almost forty percent of the world’s population uses the Internet in some capacity. The rapid influx of technology has not given slow adopters and even laymen time to become acquainted with the jargon surrounding it. For the unfamiliar it is taxing to see this technological flux as a necessity, especially when even as little as thirty years ago much of what we use today did not even exist. Weekly What Is attempts to break down this jargon until every day terms.

In 1930 a cookbook bearing Ruth Wakefield’s original Toll House Cookie recipe was published. Eighty years have passed since Mrs. Wakefield first started serving cookies at her Toll House Inn restaurant, her recipe has since become the American cookie standard with almost all of Nestlé’s cookie’s bearing the Toll House insignia. Until the early 1990’s cookies were what your Grandmother baked for Christmas, what you tried to sneak into mom’s shopping cart at the grocery store but most of all a classic American treat. However cookies were not destined to stay in Nestlé factories or Ruth Wakefield’s cookbook. The year 1994 saw a Netscape programmer take the Toll House recipe and give it an Internet cousin.

Unlike Grandma’s recipe, HTTP Cookies (or Internet cookies) do not enjoy the Christmas dinner spotlight. Computer cookies are text files, squared silently away on a users hard drive. In order to be clearer later on we’re going to have to regress into a technical definition. This is the description you’re going to see on most websites attempting to explain cookies. A cookie is a small text based file that is stored on a users computer by a webpage. This file is used in aiding both the user and the website in maintaining information as users browse throughout the site or leave and return later on. Cookies are one of those “use everyday and never know about” conveniences, like your cars alternator. Like an alternator, which charges your car battery, you really only notice cookies if they don’t work.

When you log into Facebook but are asked by your brother, sister or roommates to look up the spelling of “hors d’oeuvres” you sometimes make the mistake of clicking out of Facebook. Yet when you return, Facebook is still logged on. Cookies stored on your computer, communicating with Facebook’s servers, make this possible. Facebook specifically utilizes cookies in a few ways. One type of cookie makes sure that other people aren’t accessing your Facebook at the same time. When your Facebook is logged on to multiple computers, Facebook’s servers will check the cookies of each in an attempt to verify which computer is really you.

Cookies are primarily meant to improve websites functionality and to create a better user experiences. When you’re shopping on Amazon and adding items to your cart, cookies are the reason they don’t disappear after you close and re-open the Internet. Communicating with websites, cookies can make websites load quicker, create a more familiar, localized experience (for example, Facebook uses cookies to bring you the language that best fits your region) and help the Internet as a whole work better. They are similar to our memory when we meet a new person. Imagine every time you went to dinner with a friend you had to ask them their name, where they were from, how old they are, how they knew you and all the details you had previously known about them. Needing to relearn this would make finding out how their week was, a much longer process. The same is true of websites. Instead of having to get to know you every time you clicked in and out of the site, they use cookies to remember.

Disabling cookies is a fairly easy process.  I would encourage you to try turning them off for a few minutes; you’ll see how different the web looks, pages load slower and not as fully. Less robust sites than Amazon and Facebook will inevitably become harder to use (for example some online shops will have their shopping cart services impeded.) For files that aren’t usually larger than a few kilobytes cookies significantly impact the way we browse.

Let’s quickly review. When you (the user) click on a webpage a small file is stored on both your computer and the websites server. The next time you return to that site those stored files will help the website load faster and remember your preferences. Cookies make this happen by being an aid to the conversation, giving it a memory. Accessing those memories makes using the website easier, just as using your memory makes a conversation easier. Almost every Internet enabled computer in the world uses cookies making getting back Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Recipe website a piece of cake.

Weekly What is breaks down a new technology related word every Friday.

Special thanks to Keith Monteiro, Kamil Bynoe and Peter Goggi for their consulting work on this article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *