Local diversity (within-sample or alpha diversity) is often implicated as a cause of success or failure of a microbial community. However, the relationships between diversity and emergent properties of a community, such as its stability, productivity or invasibility, are much more nuanced. I argue that diversity without context provides limited insights into the mechanisms underpinning community patterns. I provide examples from traditional and microbial ecology to discuss common complications and assumptions about within-sample diversity that may prevent us from digging deeper into the more specific mechanisms underpinning community outcomes. I suggest that measurement of diversity should serve as a starting point for further inquiry of ecological mechanisms rather than an 'answer' to community outcomes.The ISME Journal advance online publication, 16 September 2016; doi:10.1038/ismej.2016.118.