React Recipes

The Context API

Status: WIP

Context is a neat way to share the application state with many components.

Some background

Let's take a small example application to understand where Contexts fit.

A quick way to write our app might be to have a single component, with a big old render() method:

Application.js

import React from 'react';

class Application extends React.Component {

constructor(props) {
super(props);

// set up the initial state
this.state = {
message: 'Hello World!'
};
}

render() {
return (
<div className='top'>
<div className='middle'>
<div className='bottom'>
{ this.state.message }
</div'>
</div className='middle'>
</div>
);
}
};

Here we have a component tree made up of three nested div elements. Such a setup allows us to place bits of the state liberally at whatever level in the component tree.

As we flesh out our application, we start extracting separate components, and the div elements become the components Top, Middle, and Bottom.

Application.js

import React from 'react';

const Top = props => <div className="top">{props.children}</div>;
const Middle = props => <div className="middle">{props.children}</div>;
const Bottom = props => <div className="bottom">{props.children}</div>;

class Application extends React.Component {
constructor(props) {
super(props);

// set up the initial state
this.state = {
message: 'Hello World!'
};
}

render() {
return (
<Top>
<Middle>
<Bottom>{this.state.message}</Bottom>
</Middle>
</Top>
);
}
}

To keep the same structure in the application's render() method, the three components accept whatever children we pass to them, and dutifully render them. At this point, we can still puts bits of state wherever in our app.

But then we may realize Top, Middle, and Bottom always go together in this sequence, and a better abstraction is to have Top encapsulate everything below it. For this to work, we have to start introducing some structure to how the application's state flows around: we start passing it via props.

Our Top component will now accept a message props and puts it into the Bottom component:

Top.js

const Top = props => (
<div className="top">
<Middle>
<Bottom>{props.message}</Bottom>
</Middle>
</div>
);

Application.js

import React from 'react';

class Application extends React.Component {
constructor(props) {
super(props);
this.state = {
message: 'Hello World!'
};
}

render() {
return <A message={this.state.message} />;
}
}

But then we want component B to also encapsulate everything below it, so we change A to be:

const A = props => (
<div className="A">
<B message={props.message} />
</div>
);

and B to be:

const B = props => (
<div className="B">
<C>{props.message}</C>
</div>
);

And then of course C wants to be part of the fun, and encapsulate everything below it. B becomes:

const B = props => (
<div className="B">
<C message={props.message} />
</div>
);

And finally C:

const C = props => <div className="C">{props.message}</div>;

React components normally talk only when they're in a parent-child relationship. Parents pass down props to their children, and children talk back to their parents via callback functions they receive as props.

Passing a prop several levels down in the component tree, from a component to its grandchild, or grand-grandchild, requires the collaboration of all the components along the way: we repeatedly pass the prop from parent to child, until in reaches the destination. (This is sometimes called prop drilling.)

In our example, components A and B dutifully accept a message prop to pass along until it reaches C:

const A = props => <B message=

This is fine for a while, but can become tedious. Furthermore, it's impossible to pass through components that return `false` in their `shouldComponentUpdate` method for a particular update: the prop drilling stops in its track.

The [Context API](https://reactjs.org/docs/context.html), unveiled in React 16.3, is a way to pass some pieces of state across whole swathes of the component tree, through a separate pathway that is unencumbered by normal component lifecycle methods.

We'll create a context for each piece of information we want to share with several components. We do this with the `React.createContext()` method. Let's take, as an example, an application's theme:

```js
import React from 'react';

const ThemeContext = React.createContext();
// Note: the method can also take a
`
defaultValue` argument
// but we'll ignore it for now, since it doesn't mean
// what we'd expect it to mean.

Contexts will usually live in their own files that can then be imported whenever we need them.

contexts/ThemeContext.js

import React from 'react';

const ThemeContext = React.createContext();

export default ThemeContext;

ThemeContext is a Context object that offers two special React components: a Provider and a Consumer. We access them as ThemeContext.Provider and ThemeContext.Consumer, and use them as we would normal React components in JSX.

Placing these components in our app — remembering to place the Provider somewhere above the Consumer in the component tree — allows them to talk to one another.

Application.js

import React from 'react';

// import the theme context object
import ThemeContext from './contexts/ThemeContext';

class Application extends React.Component {
constructor(props) {
super(props);
this.state = {
theme: 'light'
};
}

render() {
return (
<ThemeContext.Provider value={this.state.theme}>
<Toolbar />
<Content>
<ThemeContext.Consumer>
{value => <Sidebar theme={value} />}
</ThemeContext.Consumer>
</Content>
</ThemeContext.Provider>
);
}
}

A few things are happening here:

Assuming we need to know the current theme in a myriad of places across our app, we wrap everything in ThemeContext.Provider, so that we can potentially use ThemeContext.Consumer anywhere in our component tree. We set the single prop accepted by the Provider, value, to a value from the application's state. Always remember to pass the value prop, as ommitting it will make it undefined inside the Consumers!

Somewhere down the road, a ThemeContext.Consumer

The Consumer accepts a single child as a function (this is an example of the Render Prop pattern TODO link). The function will receive the value from the Provider as its only argument.

When deciding whether to update its consumers, the Provider will check whether its value has changed with the Object.is comparison. We can think about it as mostly a strict equality:

// this...
Object.is(objectA, objectB);

// is mostly the same as:
objectA === objectB;

(To learn more about the subtle differences between Object.is and ===, check out this TODO)

When the Providers value prop changes, all its descendant Consumers will get updated, regardless of whether between the Provider and the Consumer there's a component that returns false from its shouldComponentUpdate lifecycle methods.

When do Providers and Consumers re-render?

Whenever a render() method that contains a Provider component is invoked, the Provider, and the whole tree underneath it, get re-rendered, regardles of whether its value prop has changed or not, through the normal React flow of things.

If the value prop changes, and even if down the tree there's a component that returns false from its shouldComponentUpdate lifecycle method, Consumer components further down still get updated. (We mentioned earlier that Provider and Consumer have a separate way of communicating that is not related to the normal React flow). The Provider really, really, wants to update its Consumers no matter what.

How can a Consumer talk back to its Provider?

All that a Consumer gets from its Provider is the content of the Provider's value prop, so for the Consumer to alter values in the context, we need to pass a function in the value that can update the context.

(For the sake of brevity, I'm ommitting any intermediate components that may lay between the Provider and the Consumer. Imagine they are far, far away from each other in the component tree.)


class Application extends React.Component {
constructor(props) {
super(props);
this.toggleTheme = this.toggleTheme.bind(this);
this.state = {
theme_context: {
theme: 'light',
toggleTheme: this.toggleTheme
}
}
}

toggleTheme() {
this.setState(current_state => {
theme_context: {
...current_state.theme_context,
theme: current_state.theme_context.theme === 'light' ? 'dark' : 'light'
}
})
}

render() {
return (
<ThemeContext.Provider value={this.state.theme_context}>
...
<ThemeContext.Consumer>
{
value =>
<Sidebar
theme={value.theme}
toggleTheme={value.toggleTheme}
/>

}
</ThemeContext.Consumer>
...
</ThemeContext.Provider>
)
}
}

Let's figure out what everything does.

First of all, let's look at what we're setting as a value to the Provider: we want to include, along with the theme, a callback toggleTheme with which to toggle the application's theme from within the Consumer.

We might be tempted to pass it as:

  <ThemeContext.Provider
value={
{
theme: this.state.theme,
toggleTheme: this.toggleTheme
}
}

>

...

But by doing this, we're creating a new object each time the render() method of our application is invoked, and needlessly update all the Consumers, regardless of whether the theme changed or not. And remember, Consumers are immune to PureComponent / shouldComponentUpdate optimizations, so we really don't want to do this.

Instead we package everything we want to pass our Provider into the state, under the theme_context key. This way, the object we pass as the Provider's value stays the same as long as we don't alter it.

The second thing to notice is we're passing the toggleTheme callback function to the Provider, and this function is able to change the theme value from the context, by calling setState on the Application component.

What to put in a context and where to put it

Contexts are designed to be a fast way of sending changes to various parts of the application. As such, they only have a single value that they can pass to their Consumers.

We need to keep contexts specific, and only put in a context things that always go together.

However, if some component inside our component tree needs things from many Providers, it can get a bit unwieldly:

<ThemeContext.Consumer>
{theme => (
<UserContext.Consumer>
{user => <MyComponent user={user} theme={theme} />}
</UserContext.Consumer>
)}
</ThemeContext.Consumer>

To go around this, we can apply the render prop pattern to combine the Consumers:

const ThemeAndUserConsumer = (props) =>
<ThemeContext.Consumer>
{
theme =>
<UserContext.Consumer>
{
user =>
props.children({ user, theme });
}
</UserContext.Consumer>
}
</ThemeContext.Consumer>

// then use it with MyComponent
<ThemeAndUserConsumer>
({ user, theme }) =>
<MyComponent user={user} theme={theme} />
</ThemeAndUserConsumer>

TODO