So I’ve finally decided to sit my butt down and learn React properly. I’ll talk a little bit about my opinion on React and why it took me so long to actually do this at the end, feel free to ignore it if you have better things to do with your life.

I recall a chat I had with Shawn Wang on learning React and he mentioned how a few years ago, it was possible to read all the literature available and more or less figure out what was going on. But it’s more tricky now because there’s so much more information.

(Well, in theory, you can sort of still go back and read the entire React blog from 2013 to get a feel of how things changed over time. Also, Shawn is amazing, follow him on ALL the things)

React was (kind of?) official announced at JSConfUS 2013 so as of time of writing, that makes it over 6 years old. Ways of doing things have changed as new features have been released, and stuff got deprecated. Which brings us to 2020, when Hooks are the new hotness.

What are props?

Props are plain Javascript objects that contain information. They can be used to pass data between React components.

What is state?

State is also a plain Javascript object that contains information. It represents the dynamic parts of the React component, i.e. data that can change.

Let’s talk about components

One of the key features of React is it is a component-based architecture. It says so on their website. The point is, a complex user-interface can be built up by combining different smaller components. Data flows and is managed via state and props.

There are a couple of ways to define a React component. You can use a function like so:

function Player(props) {
  return <p>{props.name} plays for the {props.team}</p>
}

Or you could use classes like so:

class Player extends React.Component {
  render() {
    return <p>{this.props.name} plays for the {this.props.team}</p>
  }
}

But where did the props come from? You might ask.

As mentioned earlier, props are used to pass data between components. Things might look clearer if we examined the bigger application.

function Player(props) {
  return <p>{props.name} plays for the {props.team}.</p>
}

function App() {
  return (
    <div>
      <Player name="Ashlyn Harris" team="Orlando Pride" />
      <Player name="Megan Rapinoe" team="Reign FC" />
      <Player name="Julie Ertz" team="Chicago Red Stars" />
    </div>
  );
}

ReactDOM.render(
  <App />,
  document.getElementById('root')
);

Based on the above example, you can see that the props came from the JSX attributes on the Player component. This is what ends up getting rendered in the browser:

<div id="root">
  <div>
    <p>Ashlyn Harris plays for the Orlando Pride.</p>
    <p>Megan Rapinoe plays for the Reign FC.</p>
    <p>Julie Ertz plays for the Chicago Red Stars.</p>
  </div>
</div>

What is this?

Some of you may have noticed that the function component uses props.name while the class component uses this.props.name to access the required data. this is not a React thing, it is a Javascript thing. It is a Javascript thing that has spawned more blog posts that I can count.

Let me try to give you the short version. Everything in Javascript is an object. this refers to the object which is the current execution context of your bit of code.

Smarter people than me have explained this in depth so please feel free to read any or all of the following:

Personally, React made understanding this even more important because of how events are handled. Bear with me on this (Get it? this? Okay, I’m sorry, my humour is terrible)

Event handling

React implements its own synthetic event handling, which their cross-browser wrapper around the browser’s native event. It works great, that’s not the problem. The issue is how Javascript handles functions in general.

In JSX, the event handler is passed as a function, i.e. <button onClick={handleClick}>Click me</button> instead of a string as is the case in HTML, i.e. <button onclick="handleClick()">Click me</button>. The thing is, class methods are not bound by default in Javascript.

When we pass the handleClick function to onClick, we are passing a reference to handleClick. The function is called by React’s event handling system so the context of this gets lost. If you don’t bind this.handleClick and pass it to onClick, this ends up being undefined when you call the function.

I highly suggest reading Understanding this and .bind() for an in-depth explanation.

Updating state with event handlers

A very common use-case for event handlers is to update the state of your React component. The suggested way of ensuring this works correctly in your class component is to bind it in the constructor.

class Button extends React.Component {
  constructor(props) {
    super(props);
    this.state = {
      clicked: false
    };
    this.handleClick = this.handleClick.bind(this);
  }

  handleClick() {
    this.setState(state => ({
      clicked: !state.clicked
    }));
  }

  render() {
    return (
      <button onClick={this.handleClick} />
    );
  }
}

But apparently, using bind() is icky for many people. No matter, there are ways around that. So the next suggested way of ensuring this works as planned is via arrow functions.

class Button extends React.Component {
  state = { clicked: false };

  handleClick = () => {
    this.setState(state => ({
      clicked: !state.clicked
    }));
  };

  render() {
    return (
      <button onClick={this.handleClick} />
    );
  }
}

This is because arrow functions use the value of this in the scope it had been defined in. This is known as lexical scoping. The arrow function preserves its binding to this when it gets passed around.

Which brings us to the new hotness known as Hooks. According to the docs, Hooks let you use state and other React features without writing a class.

The React team found that classes were a barrier to learning React, unintentionally encouraged patterns that were detrimental to their attempts at optimisation, and also made tooling tricky.

In short, Hooks allow us to access more nifty React features without having to write classes. Embrace functions, my friends. When you use Hooks, guess what? No need to think about this.

function Button() {
  const [clicked, setClick] = useState(false);
  const handleClick = () => setClick(!clicked);

  return (
    return (
      <button onClick={handleClick} />
    );
  );
}

Demo

I built a demo of a generic social media app status component using the 3 different methods I went through above. The only interactive functionality is you can toggle the Like button, and input text in the text area up to 140 characters. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Feel free to fork it and mess around with the code. And please do tell me if anything I mentioned doesn’t make sense, is bad practice or just plain wrong. This was essentially a brain dump of what I’ve been learning about React lately, so I expect many errors.

If you spot something wrong and have a spare minute, I’d appreciate it if you let me know :)

Useful further reading

Optional story time… (feel free to disagree with my opinion)

I’ve been late to the React party partially because I hadn’t worked on any projects that used it, and also, I found the React community relatively more dramatic than most.

As such, I hadn’t bothered to try it out and understand it until fairly recently. I consider this similar to the sentiment many developers have toward CSS (similar, not the same, because you can’t run away from CSS though you can still somewhat run away from React).

In retrospect, I have been unfair to React, the technology. My approach to learning React was to go straight to the documentation (which I think is great), and also read posts by folks actually working on React or are very close to the codebase.

Because I want to know the rationale behind their design decisions, and the reason why certain things are done in a certain way. I appreciate it when they are able to articulate and explain new features and more importantly, the motivation behind them.

A big plus for me are also explanations of the trade-offs made, which provides excellent context of why certain limitations and issues exist. In a way, it is both easier and harder to learn React these days.

Easier because there are way more resources now and it’s easier to find one that clicks with your learning style. Harder because there are way more resources now, and you might end up confused with the different ways of doing things that have changed over the years.

That being said, it’s been fairly interesting so far, so let’s see where this goes. I might write more brain dumps moving forward as well. It depends. Life.