ES6 Everyday: Symbols

Alright, get yourself a cup of coffee: this one can be confusing.

With ES6, we have a new primitive data type called the symbol:

var newSymbol = Symbol();

You’ll notice I left off new here. That’s not a typo:

var newSymbol = new Symbol();
// TypeError: Symbol is not a constructor at new Symbol

A symbol is unique and immutable (can’t change):

var newSymbol = Symbol();
var otherSymbol = Symbol();
console.log(newSymbol == otherSymbol); // false

We can provide an optional description for our symbol if we want:

var symbolA = Symbol();
var symbolB = Symbol("My new symbol");

console.log(symbolA.toString()); // Symbol()
console.log(symbolB.toString()); // Symbol(My new symbol)

(Notice I have to explicitly call toString() here, symbols can not be coerced into strings)

Uhh, neato?

Really, though, what are we supposed to do with this weird new data type?

Well, given a symbol is both unique and immutable, it’s a perfect candidate for a key:

var STUDENT_ID = Symbol('Student ID');

class Student
    this[STUDENT_ID] = studentId;

var george = new Student('123456');
console.log(george[STUDENT_ID]); // 123456

Now we can refer to this student ID property without depending on a loose, arbitrary string.

Similarly, symbols can provide a common key across different implementations:

var MAKE_SOUND = Symbol();

var cat = {};
cat[MAKE_SOUND] = function() { console.log("Meow!"); };

class Dog
    this[MAKE_SOUND] = function() { console.log("Woof!"); };

var dog = new Dog();

var animal = cat;
animal[MAKE_SOUND](); // Meow!

animal = dog;
animal[MAKE_SOUND](); // Woof!

In both the case of the Dog class and the Cat anonymous object, the common MAKE_SOUND symbol identifies a method that makes a sound.

I could extend this and write something that depends on this function existing:

function echo(target) {
  // Make sound three times

echo(dog); // Woof! Woof! Woof!

Of course, our symbols will disappear as soon as we leave this scope, so how can we use them globally? Using Symbol.for:

// The symbol is created
var symbolA = Symbol.for("New symbol");

// The existing symbol is retrieved
var symbolB = Symbol.for("New symbol");

console.log(symbolA == symbolB); // true

If a global symbol corresponding to the key “New symbol” doesn’t already exist, it gets created. Otherwise, the existing symbol is returned.

We can work backwards, getting the key corresponding to a symbol using Symbol.keyFor:

console.log(Symbol.keyFor(symbolB)); // "New symbol"

Try messing around with symbols for yourself in this ES6 fiddle.