Ryan Chandler

Published in JavaScript

The Magic Behind Reactivity - Effects

In the previous instalment, we created a reactive function that accepts an object and returns a new Proxy instance.

If you're not sure what a Proxy is or how it works, definitely go back and read that post.

In this post, I'll be creating an effect function that will allow us to react to changes on the Proxy and update the DOM.

What is an "effect"?

An effect is a side-effect of a data change. Generally speaking, it's a function that should be run when a particular piece of data changes.

Here's a good example:

<p id="greeting">Hello, reader!</p>

At the moment, this text is completely static. If we use an effect function, we can actually make this dynamic.

const greeting = document.querySelector("#greeting");

const data = reactive({
    greeting: "Hello, reader!",
});

effect(() => {
    greeting.innerText = data.greeting;
});

We haven't written the effect function yet, so let's start implementing it now.

function effect(callback) {
    callback();
}

This version of effect is the bare minimum. When we register an effect, we want to invoke / call it immediately to update the DOM.

Running effects when state changes

If you were to do something like data.greeting = 'Hello, John!', nothing will happen. Our DOM node won't be updated, which isn't very helpful.

What we can do is store all the effect callbacks in an array and call each one when our Proxy is updated.

const effects = [];

function effect(callback) {
    effects.push(callback);

    callback();
}

Inside of the Proxy.set handler, we can loop through the effects array and call each callback.

function reactive(object) {
    // ...

    return new Proxy(object, {
        // ...
        set(target, property, value) {
            target[property] = reactive(value);

            effects.forEach((effect) => {
                effect();
            });

            return true;
        },
    });
}

If we were to now run data.greeting = 'Hello, John!', the DOM node's innerText property will be updated with the value Hello, John!.

More efficient updates

The current system works quite well for small bits of reactivity, such as text changes or attribute changes.

If we were to have 50 different effects though, things would get a little bit out of hand and performance would take quite a big hit. That's because each change we make to data will invoke every callbacks inside of effects and if you're doing anything intensive such as AJAX requests, big loops or heavy DOM updates, your page will slow to a snail's pace.

To work around this issue, we can introduce dependency tracking. This is really just a fancy phrase for figuring out what data an effect callback is using.

The major benefit of dependency tracking is the fact that we will be able to only invoke / call the functions that were using the data being changed.

The first thing we need to do is update our effect callback slightly:

const effects = new Map();
let currentEffect = null;

function effect(callback) {
    currentEffect = callback;

    callback();

    currentEffect = null;
}

When we register a new effect, we will assign the callback to a currentEffect variable and remove the old effects array. This will allow us to reference the callback inside of our Proxy.get function later on.

We'll also want to store the effects for a particular Proxy somewhere. The best way to do this is with a Map object.

The Map object provides you with a key/value storage, similar to a normal object. The main difference is that you're not limited to string-based keys, you can actually store objects in the key.

This means we can store the target from our Proxy in the key and then an object literal ({}) in the value.

Here's an example:

const map = new Map();

const data = {
    user: "Ryan",
};

map.set(data, {
    user: [() => {}],
});

map.get(data)["user"]; // This returns an array containing an anonymous function.

Let's also make some changes to the Proxy.get method:

let effects = new Map;

function reactive(object) {
    //...

    return new Proxy(object, {
        get(target, property) {
            if (currentEffect === null) {
                return target[property];
            }

            if (! effects.has(target)) {
                effects.set(target, {});
            }

            const targetEffects = effects.get(target);

            if (! targetEffects[property]) {
                targetEffects[property] = [];
            }

            targetEffects[property].push(currentEffect)

            return target[property];
        },
        // ...
    });

Here's a breakdown of what's happening now:

  1. Check if currentEffect is not null. If it's null, we want to just return the property without doing any tracking. It will only hold a value when effect() is doing something.
  2. Check whether our Map has any entries for the target object. If it doesn't, we need to insert an empty object into the Map using Map.set().
  3. We can then pull that object back out using Map.get(target).
  4. We need to check whether the current property being accessed on the target has an entry inside of the object returned into targetEffects. If it doesn't, we can simply write to the object using [] notation.
  5. Finally we can return the target[property] so that it still behaves like a normal object.

All of this combined allows us to track which properties are being used inside of currentEffect. Cool, right?

Running effects on change

Now that we know which effect callbacks rely on certain pieces of data, i.e. property, we can run only the required callbacks inside of Proxy.set.

let effects = new Map;

function reactive(object) {
    // ...

    return new Proxy(object, {
        // ...
        set(target, property, value) {
            target[property] = reactive(value);

            if (effects.has(target)) {
                const targetEffects = effects.get(target)

                targetEffects[property].forEach(effect => {
                    effect()
                })
            }

            return true;
        },
    });
}

Here's a breakdown of the logic:

  1. We need to check whether the current target has any effects register. If it doesn't, we don't want to do anything as it will error out.
  2. Then we want to pull all of the targetEffects for that target.
  3. Once we have those effects, we can get the array for the property being updated and loop over it, invoking / calling each item in the array.

Wrapping up

And that's it! We now have a reactive object and an effect function that is invoked each time a relevant property in our data is updated.

In the next instalment, I'll show you how to create a reactive data object from an HTML attribute, similar to Alpine's x-data.

Until then, thank you for reading and I'll catch you next time!