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Understanding Event Emitters

Consider, a DOM Event:

const button = document.querySelector("button");

button.addEventListener("click", (event) => /* do something with the event */)

We added a listener to a button click. We’ve subscribed to an event being emitted and we fire a callback when it does. Every time we click that button, that event is emitted and our callback fires with the event.

There may be times you want to fire a custom event when you’re working in an existing codebase. Not specifically a DOM event like clicking a button, but let's say you want to emit an event based on some other trigger and have an event respond. We need a custom event emitter to do that.

An event emitter is a pattern that listens to a named event, fires a callback, then emits that event with a value. Sometimes this is referred to as a "pub/sub" model, or listener. It's referring to the same thing.

In JavaScript, an implementation of it might work like this:

let n = 0;
const event = new EventEmitter();

event.subscribe("THUNDER_ON_THE_MOUNTAIN", value => (n = value));

event.emit("THUNDER_ON_THE_MOUNTAIN", 18);

// n: 18

event.emit("THUNDER_ON_THE_MOUNTAIN", 5);

// n: 5

In this example, we’ve subscribed to an event called “THUNDER_ON_THE_MOUNTAIN” and when that event is emitted our callback value => (n = value) will be fired. To emit that event, we call emit().

This is useful when working with async code and a value needs to be updated somewhere that isn't co-located with the current module.

A really macro-level example of this is React Redux. Redux needs a way to externally share that its internal store has updated so that React knows those values have changed, allowing it to call setState() and re-render the UI. This happens through an event emitter. The Redux store has a subscribe function, and it takes a callback that provides the new store and, in that function, calls React Redux's <Provider> component, which calls setState() with the new store value. You can look through the whole implementation here.

Now we have two different parts of our application: the React UI and the Redux store. Neither one can tell the other about events that have been fired.

Implementation

Let's look at building a simple event emitter. We'll use a class, and in that class, track the events:

class EventEmitter {
  public events: Events;
  constructor(events?: Events) {
    this.events = events || {};
  }
}

Events

We'll define our events interface. We will store a plain object, where each key will be the named event and its respective value being an array of the callback functions.

interface Events {
  [key: string]: Function[];
}

/**
{
  "event": [fn],
  "event_two": [fn]
}
*/

We're using an array because there could be more than one subscriber for each event. Imagine the number of times you'd call element.addEventLister("click") in an application... probably more than once.

Subscribe

Now we need to deal with subscribing to a named event. In our simple example, the subscribe() function takes two parameters: a name and a callback to fire.

event.subscribe("named event", value => value);

Let's define that method so our class can take those two parameters. All we'll do with those values is attach them to the this.events we're tracking internally in our class.

class EventEmitter {
  public events: Events;
  constructor(events?: Events) {
    this.events = events || {};
  }

  public subscribe(name: string, cb: Function) {
    (this.events[name] || (this.events[name] = [])).push(cb);
  }
}

Emit

Now we can subscribe to events. Next up, we need to fire those callbacks when a new event emits. When it happen, we'll use event name we're storing (emit("event")) and any value we want to pass with the callback (emit("event", value)). Honestly, we don't want to assume anything about those values. We'll simply pass any parameter to the callback after the first one.

class EventEmitter {
  public events: Events;
  constructor(events?: Events) {
    this.events = events || {};
  }

  public subscribe(name: string, cb: Function) {
    (this.events[name] || (this.events[name] = [])).push(cb);
  }

  public emit(name: string, ...args: any[]): void {
    (this.events[name] || []).forEach(fn => fn(...args));
  }
}

Since we know which event we're looking to emit, we can look it up using JavaScript's object bracket syntax (i.e. this.events[name]). This gives us the array of callbacks that have been stored so we can iterate through each one and apply all of the values we're passing along.

Unsubscribing

We've got the main pieces solved so far. We can subscribe to an event and emit that event. That's the big stuff.

Now we need to be able to unsubscribe from an event.

We already have the name of the event and the callback in the subscribe() function. Since we could have many subscribers to any one event, we'll want to remove callbacks individually:

subscribe(name: string, cb: Function) {
  (this.events[name] || (this.events[name] = [])).push(cb);

  return {
    unsubscribe: () =>
      this.events[name] && this.events[name].splice(this.events[name].indexOf(cb) >>> 0, 1)
  };
}

This returns an object with an unsubscribe method. We use an arrow function (() =>) to get the scope of this parameters that are passed to the parent of the object. In this function, we'll find the index of the callback we passed to the parent and use the bitwise operator (>>>). The bitwise operator has a long and complicated history (which you can read all about). Using one here ensures we'll always get a real number every time we call splice() on our array of callbacks, even if indexOf() doesn't return a number.

Anyway, it's available to us and we can use it like this:

const subscription = event.subscribe("event", value => value);

subscription.unsubscribe();

Now we're out of that particular subscription while all other subscriptions can keep chugging along.

All Together Now!

Sometimes it helps to put all the little pieces we've discussed together to see how they relate to one another.

interface Events {
  [key: string]: Function[];
}

export class EventEmitter {
  public events: Events;
  constructor(events?: Events) {
    this.events = events || {};
  }

  public subscribe(name: string, cb: Function) {
    (this.events[name] || (this.events[name] = [])).push(cb);

    return {
      unsubscribe: () =>
        this.events[name] && this.events[name].splice(this.events[name].indexOf(cb) >>> 0, 1)
    };
  }

  public emit(name: string, ...args: any[]): void {
    (this.events[name] || []).forEach(fn => fn(...args));
  }
}

Demo

See the Pen
Understanding Event Emitters
by Charles (@charliewilco)
on CodePen.

We're doing a few thing in this example. First, we're using an event emitter in another event callback. In this case, an event emitter is being used to clean up some logic. We're selecting a repository on GitHub, fetching details about it, caching those details, and updating the DOM to reflect those details. Instead of putting that all in one place, we're fetching a result in the subscription callback from the network or the cache and updating the result. We're able to do this because we're giving the callback a random repo from the list when we emit the event

Now let's consider something a little less contrived. Throughout an application, we might have lots of application states that are driven by whether we're logged in and we may want multiple subscribers to handle the fact that the user is attempting to log out. Since we've emitted an event with false, every subscriber can use that value, and whether we need to redirect the page, remove a cookie or disable a form.

const events = new EventEmitter();

events.emit("authentication", false);

events.subscribe("authentication", isLoggedIn => {
  buttonEl.setAttribute("disabled", !isLogged);
});

events.subscribe("authentication", isLoggedIn => {
  window.location.replace(!isLoggedIn ? "/login" : "");
});

events.subscribe("authentication", isLoggedIn => {
  !isLoggedIn && cookies.remove("auth_token");
});

Gotchas

As with anything, there are a few things to consider when putting emitters to work.

  • We need to use forEach or map in our emit() function to make sure we're creating new subscriptions or unsubscribing from a subscription if we're in that callback.
  • We can pass pre-defined events following our Events interface when a new instance of our EventEmitter class has been instantiated, but I haven't really found a use case for that.
  • We don't need to use a class for this and it's largely a personal preference whether or not you do use one. I personally use one because it makes it very clear where events are stored.

As long as we're speaking practicality, we could do all of this with a function:

function emitter(e?: Events) {
  let events: Events = e || {};

  return {
    events,
    subscribe: (name: string, cb: Function) => {
      (events[name] || (events[name] = [])).push(cb);

      return {
        unsubscribe: () => {
          events[name] && events[name].splice(events[name].indexOf(cb) >>> 0, 1);
        }
      };
    },
    emit: (name: string, ...args: any[]) => {
      (events[name] || []).forEach(fn => fn(...args));
    }
  };
}

Bottom line: a class is just a preference. Storing events in an object is also a preference. We could just as easily have worked with a Map() instead. Roll with what makes you most comfortable.


I decided to write this post for two reasons. First, I always felt I understood the concept of emitters made well, but writing one from scratch was never something I thought I could do but now I know I can — and I hope you now feel the same way! Second, emitters are make frequent appearances in job interviews. I find it really hard to talk coherently in those types of situations, and jotting it down like this makes it easier to capture the main idea and illustrate the key points.

I've set all this up in a GitHub repo if you want to pull the code and play with it. And, of course, hit me up with questions in the comments if anything pops up!

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