The metacommunity concept is an important way to think about linkages between different spatial scales in ecology. Here we review current understanding about this concept. We first investigate issues related to its definition as a set of local communities that are linked by dispersal of multiple potentially interacting species. We then identify four paradigms for metacommunities: the patch-dynamic view, the species-sorting view, the mass effects view and the neutral view, that each emphasizes different processes of potential importance in metacommunities. These have somewhat distinct intellectual histories and we discuss elements related to their potential future synthesis. We then use this framework to discuss why the concept is useful in modifying existing ecological thinking and illustrate this with a number of both theoretical and empirical examples. As ecologists strive to understand increasingly complex mechanisms and strive to work across multiple scales of spatio-temporal organization, concepts like the metacommunity can provide important insights that frequently contrast with those that would be obtained with more conventional approaches based on local communities alone.