Digital messaging used to be so simple. Once the modem's screeches, clucks and beeps ended and I was connected to AOL's servers, all my friends would be right there, ready to chat. When cellphones untethered us from our computers, texting was all we needed. Sure, it turned our thumbs into gymnasts, but it was manageable.
Now I feel like taking cover behind the couch to dodge the messages flying at me from every which way -- text messages, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts and Twitter direct messages.
而现在，我的感觉就像是躲在沙发后面，躲避着从各个渠道扑向我的信息―文本短信、iMessage、Facebook Messenger、谷歌环聊(Google Hangouts)和推特(Twitter)私信。
Having more options doesn't feel like a good thing. Everyone's on different services, which makes group conversations hard. Most popular services are also missing features like voice memos and read receipts.
Plenty of upstart apps offer more powerful messaging plus lots of fun features, including sketch pads and meme generators. You haven't fully expressed yourself until you've used animated stickers.
I set out on a journey with friends and family to test four services: WhatsApp, which gained fame for Facebook's $19 billion acquisition of it, along with Kik, WeChat and Viber. I even called on my parents, who usually stick to texting and emailing, and have no patience for complicated apps and social networks.
All of these apps work similarly. You download it (most are available for iPhone, Android, Windows Phone and even BlackBerry) and enter your phone number. Then you watch as the app scans your phone's address book for contacts who use the service.
You can send a text to those not yet on the service, requesting the favor of their presence. Once your people start turning up, you can chat with them privately or form groups.
I began with WhatsApp, the easiest for getting started and creating chat groups. When I enlisted my mom, she asked why these were different than text messaging, but quickly answered her own question.
She said chatting felt speedier than texts and iMessage. She loved sending short recorded voice messages to my sister and me. The app makes it easy to throw in photos and video, and to set your status so people know if you're available.
WhatsApp was the only one my parents didn't need help figuring out. But the app lacks features, digital stickers and other multimedia gimmicks.
It also doesn't have functional tools such as desktop chat, which lets you keep up with your mobile buddies while chained to your computer.
Kik, incredibly popular with teens because of the crazy multimedia features, allows you to search the Web for fun stuff such as GIFs and YouTube videos and drop them into your chat. You can doodle, insert stickers (yes, I paid $2 for a South Park pack), even add your own words to popular meme photos. There's a Snapchat-like feature to transmit self-destructing images.
Kik, though, doesn't offer easy access to basic video and audio messaging that my family loved in WhatsApp. And for all the fun I had using Kik with friends and colleagues, my parents couldn't have been less interested. Kik's interface is cluttered and confusing, like a teenager's bedroom.
Huge in China, WeChat falls between Kik and WhatsApp, with a handy Web chat mode and a large selection of stickers -- including animated ones from Pixar movies.
Initially I scoffed at the chat sticker trend, but the cartoons are a fun way to respond to messages without having to say much.
WeChat's standout feature is an amusing walkie-talkie mode. Hold down the large circular button to talk, release it to hear your friends. Fun for a few minutes? Yes. Practical for everyday use? Probably not.
WeChat is short on some basics. The overall interface is dull and certain expected features, like showing a message has been received, are missing. Also, my mom and my sister found it the hardest to set up.
I looked at other popular apps -- Line, Telegram and KakaoTalk among them -- but they were so similar to WhatsApp and WeChat, I felt underwhelmed.
Until I found Viber.
Viber has many of the same text options as the others, but focuses on audio calling. Like Skype, if both users are on Viber, you can make audio calls over Wi-Fi or a data connection. Sound quality was good, though there was an echo on some calls.
While the app doesn't pack as many tricks as Kik, it puts a good chunk of them into a tidier control panel. It also has Mac and Windows desktop applications.
As smart as Viber is, it needs a user-interface makeover before it can compete with WhatsApp.
(The company says it is working on an update to its outdated iOS app.)
So my journey ended with an edict that my family and close friends have group chats over WhatsApp, even though I'll miss stickers and could benefit from Web chat. (WhatsApp declined to comment on its road map.)
I may never get everyone on the same chat service, but I've already got some of my favorite people gathered on WhatsApp.
Besides, the Facebook acquisition has piqued enough curiosity that more are starting to turn up everyday. It's almost like those simpler AOL days, but without the melodious modem sounds.