Functions in Javascript are treated as first-class objects. This means that they have a type of Object and can be referenced like any other first-class object, such as Date, Number, and String. This may seem obvious to you, but it’s important to remember that the nature of functions in Javascript are quite different then, for example, methods in Ruby.

So what does this mean? Since functions are actually objects, they can be assigned to variables and passed as arguments to functions.

For example, take a look at the following snippet.

function functionFirst(){
  console.log( 'Damn Daniel');
}

function functionSecond(){
  console.log( 'Back at it again!');
}

functionFirst();
functionSecond();

The result might be what you expect.

Damn Daniel
Back at it again!

Asynchronous JavaScript

Now let’s add a timeout to the first function.

function functionFirst() {
  setTimeout(function() {
    console.log('Damn Daniel');
  }, 3000);
}

function functionSecond(){
  console.log( 'Back at it again!');
}

functionFirst();
functionSecond();

After a three second delay, this gets outputted:

Back at it again!
Damn Daniel

Why? Javascript is of a single threaded nature. This means it executes one piece of code at a time (each piece of code, or operation, is queued along this single thread). Notice how functionFirst() triggers setTimeout, which queues an operation to run after a certain delay (in this case, after 3 seconds). The concept of running after a certain time is exactly what asynchronous means.

Callbacks

Now, for obvious reasons, we want the text Back at it again! to show after Damn Daniel. To do so, we can store functionSecond() as a callback.

function functionFirst(callback) {
  setTimeout(function() {
    console.log('Back at it again');
    callback();
    }, 3000);
}

function functionSecond() {
  console.log('with the white Vans!');
}

functionFirst(function(){
  functionSecond();
});

console.log('Damn Daniel');

The output:

Damn Daniel
Back at it again
with the white Vans!

We can see that functionFirst accepts functionSecond as an argument, or callback, and this means that functionFirst is a higher-order function. In other words, functionFirst will call the second function back later once its operation is complete.

So why is this useful? Say you send off an HTTP request and you need to do something with the response. Instead of holding up your browser, you can use a callback to handle the response whenever it arrives. Another useful example in this context could be when your application is dependent on user input.

The only reason I used setTimeout was to simulate an operation that takes a certain time. Such operations could be reading from a text file, downloading things or performing an HTTP request. Node, for example, is built entirely on an asynchronous concept and uses callbacks extensively. The following is a simple example.

var fs = require("fs");

fs.readFile('input.txt', function(err, data) {
  if (err) return console.error(err);
  console.log(data);
});

Notice the first argument of the call back is reserved for an error object. This is the error callback convention that has been standardized to allow for Node’s asynchronous nature.

Wrapping things up

With that, we’ve covered the basics of callbacks and how they can be used. However, callbacks aren’t the only way to handle asynchronous operations in JavaScript. Promises are another way, and I’ll write about that in my next post about asynchronous JavaScript .