Cookies aren't all bad. They let websites know which language you speak and the types of products you want. Image courtesy of Andrew Whitesell.

C is for Cookie

On national cookie day we take a moment to highlight all things technologically cookie.

Today is National Cookie Day. It’s a day that, once a year, we take time to honor the cookie. From its small file size, to its ability to store stateful information in a stateless protocol…

What, not exactly the cookies you were thinking of?

I’m, of course, talking about HTTP cookies, also known as web cookies or browser cookies. A cookie is nothing more than a small bit of data sent from a website and stored in a user’s browser. They consist of a name, a value, and zero or more attributes, such as an expiration date, a domain, or flags, to store information.

Cookies function as the short-term memory of the internet. They’re what allow sites to know that you want the text to be displayed in English and not Portuguese, or that you’re logged into your email account, or that you added a Belgian waffle maker to your shopping cart.

Three cartoon cookies, with eyes and legs, each wear sashes. The sashes, respectively read: "Languag

Now, while the ability to add Belgian waffle makers to your online shopping cart seems all well and good, there is also a downside to cookies. One of the major drawbacks is that they can be used to track your movements through the web.

Advertising companies will sometimes use third-party cookies in order to track users across multiple websites. Specifically, across any web page in which they have advertisements or web beacons. Advertisers then use this information to try and better target your personal preferences.

A cartoon cookie with devil horns, eyes, a mustache, and legs stands under the word "advertisements"

So if you have ever noticed a bunch of advertisements popping up about Belgian Waffle makers after you visited an online store posting for one, or a Belgian Waffle fan page, you can probably go ahead and blame cookies.

Now, if you’re anything like Ron Swanson, from NBC’s Parks and Recreation, in the above clip, you might not be 100% okay with the idea of third-party advertisers tracking your movements across the web. Don’t worry, there’s a better way of limiting third party cookies than tossing your computer into the dumpster. You can actually tell your browser to look out for and block third-party cookies. The method will vary depending on which browser you prefer, but luckily, there are resources out there to help you block those advertisements. 

The thing to remember about cookies is that they are neither inherently good nor inherently bad. They’re simply tools that web developers can use for good (like keeping track of your language preferences), or for bad (like tracking your love of breakfast foods).

Related Resources

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.