What the Hell Are Cookies, and Why Should You Delete Them?

If you've ever had to deal with computer tech support, whether it's the Genius Bar or your company's IT department, you've probably heard the following question:

"Have you deleted your cookies?"

You likely responded with, "No, but I've eaten them!" and shared a sensible chuckle with the person on the phone. But dad jokes aside, what actually are cookies? Why do they even exist in the first place? How do you delete them? What is reality, anyway?

The answers to those first three questions can be found below, in our comprehensive guide to browser cookies. You're on your own with that last one, though.

So, what are cookies?

Simply put, "cookies" are actually small packets of data sent to your browser from websites you visit, containing information about your activity on the page, which your browser then saves as a small text file. That information can include your username and password, site preferences, or what you might've left in your Amazon shopping cart -- the browser saves that stuff so you don't have to re-enter it every time, which is nice.

There are multiple different types of cookies which behave in different ways: Some are erased when you close the window, while others are stored on your hard drive until they expire (or you delete them).

As for why they're called cookies, there's actually a straightforward explanation: It's a play on "fortune cookies" (because they contain hidden information).

When & why should I delete them?

Cookies operate in the background, so they're not likely to cause much obvious trouble, but there are some instances where you'd want to delete them. The cached data in cookies can sometimes conflict with the website they refer to if the page has been updated, resulting in errors when you attempt to load the page again. Also, since cookies are actually files on your hard drive, they do end up taking up some space on your computer, and although each file is only a few KB in size, they can conceivably add up if left untouched for long enough. 

And lastly, these cookies are storing your user data at the end of the day, and if you're at all interested in maintaining your privacy, the last thing you want is a record of your activity. However, if it's privacy you're after, why not just open an incognito window?

Note: If you're deleting cookies, you'll also probably want to clear your browser's cache. Fortunately, we've got a guide on how to clear your cache as well.

OK, how do I delete my cookies?

It's a very simple process, but the exact steps will depend on the browser you're using, and whether you want to delete all the cookies or just the ones for a single site. Here are the official step-by-step guides for deleting your cookies on Firefox, Google Chrome, and Safari.

Ultimately, though, you shouldn't put too much thought into how frequently you delete your cookies. They're a necessary part of browsing the web, and unless you enjoy re-entering your information every time you visit a site, you should probably just leave them be.

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Gianni Jaccoma is an editor for Thrillist, and a firm believer that you should never delete another man's cookies. Follow his trail of crumbs on Twitter @gjaccoma.