"Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.
Today’s column is written by Lou Montulli, co-founder and chief scientist at Zetta.net.
Once in a while, someone asks me whether I’d have still created the cookie if I knew then what I know now. I always say yes. For better or worse, the cookie, and the avalanche of advertising that came with it, was necessary for the web to mature and thrive.
The industry just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the banner. The cookie made possible those early banners – and every banner since. As the creator of the cookie, it’s been interesting to look back on the impact the cookie has had on the digital ecosystem.
I believe its function, if not its form, is still critical.
I didn’t create the cookie with advertising in mind. The goal was simply to allow sites to recognize returning visitors. It sounds so basic today but 20 years ago that was a real problem. Every visit to every page on every site was treated like an entirely new experience, at least from web servers’ perspective. For site visitors, it was annoying. For webmasters, it was frustrating. But for the web cookie, it was the raison d’etre.
By creating a tiny snippet of code that could be recognized when a visitor returned, a publisher could do all kinds of things. They could remember a person’s preferences, their contact information and whether he or she had any items in a shopping cart. The original cookie was designed to recognize only a single user returning to a single site. It was intended to recognize a first-party relationship.
It didn’t take long for the act of recognizing a returning visitor to be applied beyond its original purpose. The cookie began to be used beyond a single site to track an individual user all over the web. But the third-party cookie was a horse of a different color. It introduced new capabilities that weren’t part of the original plan at all.
The cookie became a critical but overlooked and underappreciated element of the Internet. Like the proverbial nail, its value is only recognized in its absence.
A Familiar Problem
For the past seven years we’ve witnessed a seismic shift in computing as mobile took off, more diverse and exotic devices went online and “things” became part of the addressable landscape. For all of the excitement and opportunity this shift has engendered, we find ourselves facing the same challenge that faced the web 20 years ago: How can all of the sites, systems and apps recognize and make sense of visitors coming from so many different directions?
There are, of course, some differences. When the cookie was created, the problem was brand-new and barely understood. The solution that was developed was accidental. The uses it was put to were unintended.
Today we know exactly the problem we’re trying to solve. We know exactly what we’re trying to accomplish. And we know – roughly – the shape of a solution.
A Different Era
So why don’t we have something that duplicates the function of the cookie across the new digital landscape?
Unlike the early days of the web, there are many stakeholders, standards and constituencies today that want a say in the shape of the future. The early web was incredibly simple. There were so few moving parts that a single system could be imagined and built to connect the most relevant dots.
That isn’t the case today. Or is it? If we’re able to abstract things it becomes possible to see that the same concepts and concerns are again in play. But hopefully this time, we as an industry will get it right a little faster than the last time around.