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Symbols in ES6 - A Quick Guide

mildrenben profile image Ben Mildren ・1 min read

Overview

Symbols are a new primitive type introduced in ES6.

Symbols are completely unique identifiers. Just like its primitive counterparts, they can be created using the factory function Symbol() which returns a Symbol.

const foo = Symbol()

The two variables below, foo and bar are not the same, they are both unique. Imagine a really long random string is return by each Symbol() call.

const foo = Symbol()

const bar = Symbol()

foo === bar // false

// I imagine Symbols looking like this 'NqkvK1kq7q#R99l9&7YH*@7wa8cFJc'

It takes an optional description argument, used only for debugging purposes.

const foo = Symbol('foo')

Unlike its counterparts (Boolean, Number and String), Symbols do not have a literal nor can they be used as a constructor.

const foo = new Symbol()
// TypeError: Symbol is not a constructor

Usage

Symbols primary use case is for making private object properties, which can be only of type String or Symbol (for those curious, Numbers are automatically converted to Strings).

const sym = Symbol()

const foo = {
  [sym]: 'someValue'
}

foo[sym] // 'someValue'

Using Symbols for object properties is handy for hiding certain properties that might name clash with other libraries.


They're also very useful for defining metadata on an object, as Symbols are not enumarable and as such they are not iterated over when using a for...of loop and other functions that return object properties.

const sym = Symbol()

const foo = {
  name: 'Ben',
  age: 25,
  [sym]: 'someHiddenMetadata'
}

for(let val of foo) {
  console.log(val) // Ben, 25
}

Object.getOwnPropertyNames(foo) // Ben, 25

Object.keys(foo) // Ben, 25

Symbols as object properties are not completely hidden though, hence why I've been italicising hidden in this article. You can still access Symbols by using the following methods:

Object.getOwnPropertySymbols(foo) // Symbol()

Reflect.ownKeys(foo) // Symbol()

So, they're not entirely private, but they are skipped in common iteration cycles.


Just as you'd expect they can also be used for any object property name, including methods.

const bar = {
  [Symbol('method')] () { 
    console.log('hello')  
  }
}

Usage without objects

Although the main application for Symbols seems to be as object property names, they could have value elsewhere, most notably as a replacement for Strings in constants.

Lots of projects have a set of constants that looks something like this:

const ARTICLE1 = 'ARTICLE1'
const ARTICLE2 = 'ARTICLE2'
const ARTICLE3 = 'ARTICLE3'

These constants might then be used in another file making a request as such:

import * as c from './constants'

const getRequestURL = req => {
  switch(req) {
    // Standard articles
    case c.ARTICLE1: {
      // do stuff
      return `https://api.com/${c.ARTICLE1}`
    }
    case c.ARTICLE2: {
      // do stuff
      return `https://api.com/${c.ARTICLE2}`
    }
    case c.ARTICLE3: {
      // do stuff
      return `https://api.com/${c.ARTICLE3}`
    }
    // Articles written by users get handled here
    default: {
      // do stuff
      return `https://api.com/userGeneratedContent/${req}
    }
  }
}

Obviously the above is quite a contrived example but you get the picture. A lot of frontend apps are structured similarly to this.

Let's imagine that by chance someone named the title of their article 'ARTICLE1'. It would not get to the default function of the switch statement where it wants to be, it would be intercepted above. You can see that because our constants are not unique, they can interact in unexpected ways.

The solution to this issue is using Symbols as constants.

const ARTICLE1 = Symbol('ARTICLE1')
const ARTICLE2 = Symbol('ARTICLE2')
const ARTICLE3 = Symbol('ARTICLE3')

Now there is no possible way these constants can conflict with another constant.

Details & Caveats

Global Symbols

Global Symbols seemingly go against the whole point of Symbols: they're not unique. But they do have a purpose.

A Global Symbol Registry exists where you can store and access Global Symbols. You can use the Symbol.for(key) method to both create and access Global Symbols.

const foo = Symbol.for('hello') // If the Symbol does not exist, it's created

const bar = Symbol.for('hello') // The Symbol exists, so it is returned

foo === bar // true

Note that the key here is not an optional description like in regular Symbols, it is an identifier.

You can do a reverse look up for Global Symbols if you have the Symbol itself and want the key.

const foo = Symbol.for('someKey')

const bar = Symbol.keyFor(foo) // someKey

Global Symbols exist across realms. A realm is a context in which code exists, almost like a scope. Modules, global variables etc. all exist within realm. Each frame in a browser is in its own realm, so iFrames have a different context to your main frame. Global Symbols actually do exist across realms and can be used between them.

"Well Known" Symbols

There are a number of "Well Known" Symbols baked right into javascript and they all have specific functions.

The most useful of these so called "Well Known" Symbols is Symbol.iterator, which allows us to make our own objects iterable. The for...of loop calls Symbol.iterator to iterate over a set of values.

MDN provides this simple example to show how you'd use Symbol.iterator.

var myIterable = {}
myIterable[Symbol.iterator] = function* () {
    yield 1;
    yield 2;
    yield 3;
};
[...myIterable] // [1, 2, 3]

You can see a full list of "Well Known" Symbols right here.

No auto conversion to String

Unlike many other types, Symbols do not auto convert to a String. You may not have even noticed this was happening for other types, but think about when you alert() a Number, or alert() an Array. They get auto converted to a string.

Symbols don't support this. You must explicitly call the .toString() method.

This funcionality is here to help us as usually they should not be converted.

const sym = Symbol();
const foo = '' + sym
// TypeError: Cannot convert a Symbol value to a string

alert(sym)
// TypeError: Cannot convert a Symbol value to a string

alert(sym.toString()) // Symbol()

Due to this, you need to use square brackets within object literals, like so const foo = { [Symbol()]: 'hey' }.

When are they copied?

Symbols are copied in both Object.assign and the object spread operator { ... }.

const sym = Symbol('hey')

const a = { [sym]: 'a' }

const b = { ...a } // { Symbol('hey'): 'a' }

const c = Object.assign(a, {}) // { Symbol('hey'): 'a' }

Further Reading

Posted on Dec 7 '17 by:

Discussion

markdown guide
 

I still didn't get why symbols are used. can you tell me why they are used?

 

TLDR: They're used because they are unique. That's it.

Imagine them like any other string except you can guarantee it's unique.

(Also when used as object keys they're enumerable which is nice)

 

Symbol.for() means Symbols are truly not unique.

Combined with the Symbol iterator Object.getOwnPropertySymbols object Symbols can be exposed

 
 

Nice article, but I think there is a typo.

const foo = {
name: 'Ben',
age: 25,

}

for(let val of foo) {
console.log(val) // Ben, 25
}

This should throw TypeError, because objects are not iterable. Maybe you meant for...in ?

 
for(let val of Object.entries(foo)) {
    console.log(val) // ['name','Ben'], ['age',25]
}

developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/W...