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.
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.
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.