MutationObserver limitations

The observers

MutationObserver, along with its siblings ResizeObserver and IntersectionObserver, are great tools for working with the DOM. I don’t think there’s necessarily broad usage of these observers in frontend development but, when building applications that need insight into lower-level DOM changes, they are powerful interfaces and allow you to avoid the typical/hacky solution of polling for changes.


All the observer classes share a common, fairly simple interface. There’s just a few key aspects needed to use them:

  • The constructor takes a callback, which is called whenever the DOM state change corresponding to the class (mutation, resize, etc.) is observed.
  • The observe() method takes a target DOM element to observer

On an observed state change (e.g. mutation) the given callback is called with an appropriate record (e.g. MutationRecord)

Missing context

The records surfaced on an observed state change contain information about the change but nothing around who or what triggered the change. Looking at a comparable scenario, this is typically the case for most DOM events as well, but it’s generally a non-issue because you can reasonably assume that the event was triggered by the user interacting with the browser. When it comes to changes detected by an observer, there’s a bit more ambiguity as to how the change came about and you can’t always assume the change was from the end-user.

Note: yes, you an programmatically force DOM events to be emitted as well (e.g. but I think this is almost always an anti-pattern

For example, let’s say you have an application where you allow users to enter content into a contenteditable <div> but you’d also programmatically surface and incorporate content coming from the server (from other internet users using the application). Ideally, you could use a MutationObserver on the <div> to detect changes and see if there’s new content that needs to be sent to the server, but you’d need to distinguish:

  • What changes are coming from the user interacting with the browser
  • What changes are being made programmatically (i.e. coming from other server / coming from other users)

Unfortunately, you can’t make this distinction with the information surfaced in a MutationRecord.

While DOM events don’t necessarily map to an actor model, I tend to think what’s conceptually missing here is knowing the originating actor of the events/message and, in any user-facing system, there’s going to be at least 2 actors:

  • The system
  • The end-user interacting with the system

Once you’re within a system dealing with mutating state, knowing who the originating actor is incredibly valuable information.

Hacking around this

I’m prototyping a hacky, but reasonable, solution for ScratchGraph:

Overall, this seems to work but I hate patterns like this where I have to purposely introduce latency.