Cookies are little tracking devices that are downloaded automatically when you visit a website.
The cookie follows what you do online – what you do on the cookie’s site and then what other sites you visit – and then passes that information back to the original website when you return to it.
When you log into Twitter, then browse away to Pinterest, and come back to Twitter and don’t have to sign in again – that’s a cookie remembering that you were already logged in! When you add things to your Amazon shopping cart, go to Facebook to read your friend’s status updates, and then come back to find your shopping cart still full – that’s a cookie that remembered what you put in your cart!
Cookies can store all types of information about you, but usually they just want to know what it is you are doing on their website (adding things to my shopping cart!) and what other websites you like to browse.
Cookies have a bad reputation because people feel like it’s an invasion of their privacy to have their browsing habits monitored.
Cookies can definitely be used for nefarious means, but most of the time they serve an essential function of the digital economy.
Most of the websites and web services we love are supported by advertising revenue, meaning their lifeblood is being able to sell advertising space to companies that want to reach you. The New York Times, AOL, Facebook, Twitter, and Google are all primarily supported by advertising revenue.
Google, for example, prices all their advertising per-click, meaning Google only gets paid if a user clicks on an advertising. What’s the best way to get you to click on an ad? Show you an ad for something you are already looking for! And how do they know what sorts of things you are looking for? That’s right, they use a cookie!
This can work to your advantage also because it can make your search easier. Right now Google is running a series of ads in the New York City subways that explain how cookies allow them to know whether you are looking for a bug or a car when you Google for “Beetle.”
Cocktail Party Fact
Little pieces of data have been called cookies since way before Lou Montulli thought to try using them in the Netscape browser (read about the history of cookies). Stories of how the name originated vary, but the most popular explanation is that it was inspired by the Sesame Street Cookie Monster and that it began as a joke between some silly software developers who rigged their co-workers computer to re-direct to a screen that demanded a cookie and would not relent until the poor guy typed in “Oreo.”
Further evidence that most web jargon started as part of some joke, but eventually became internet lingua franca!
Now try this!
Because of heightened concerns about privacy, most modern browsers allow you to do “Private Browsing” which turns off all cookies.
- In Firefox, go to “Tools > Start Private Browsing”. In Chrome you can go to “File > New Incognito Window.”
- Try doing some of the things you normally do online – check today’s news, read your email, browse your favorite e-commerce store.
- Take a look at the ads you see and whether they seem more or less relevant to you? Do you mind needing to re-log into your favorite websites?